The fall semester is coming to a close for millions of college students across the nation, many of which have been tasked with completing months-long projects that are, well, agonizingly bland. That wasn’t the case for eight mechanical engineering students at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville who for their semester-long senior project built a high-powered rocket.
Under the administrative support of UW-Platteville Mechanical Engineering Professor Dr. Prathivadi Ravikumar, the students planned, crafted, and eventually flew on Nov. 21 their smart rocket to an altitude of more than 3,000 feet. Though the height that the rocket reached might seem like an impressive figure, the true goal of the project (which was achieved) was more about the stability of the rocket.
According to their design report summary, the Senior Design Rocketry team wanted to create a high-powered rocket, which through the implementation of mechanical and electrical systems, “could automatically stabilize its own flight by maintaining attitude control.” For the flight to be a success, the rocket had to “maintain a vertical orientation with respect to the ground while mitigating roll about its longitudinal axis.” The behavior of the flight pattern was expected to be unaltered by the weather conditions, which aren’t too hospitable in Southwestern Wisconsin this time of year.
Flying rockets for educational purposes isn’t anything new. However, what this team of engineering students did was very unique, according to the team’s Project Facilitator, Trent Cybela.
“…You would be hard-pressed to find another undergraduate project of similar scale anywhere else in Wisconsin, and perhaps the rest of the country,” Cybela said in an interview with Product Design & Development. “The control system is really what makes this project special, as automatic control is a very difficult subject.”
Again citing information from the team’s design report, amateur rockets are routinely built according to well outdated stabilization techniques despite the presence of technological breakthroughs. Such an example is the prevalence of rockets built according to static-fin designs created in the 1930s to ensure that amateur rockets experience steady flight. These type of passive stabilization techniques extremely hobble what an amateur-built rocket can achieve.
Breaking away from the norm, the UW-Platteville Senior Design Rocketry group assimilated servo-actuated fins into their project. According to Cybela, these specialized fins have a function that is comparable to that of an aileron, elevator, and rudder for an airplane.
For Cybela, who graduated at the end of UW-Platteville’s fall semester and will now assume a career with a Wisconsin-based aerospace company, the succession of the recently completed senior design project has been a long time coming.
“It was my intent to cater my undergraduate education to reflect my desired career goals – which include working in aerospace,” he said. “Designing and building a high-powered rocket for senior design seemed like the logical progression.”
There was no issue forming a full team of capable students for the senior design project (In fact, the team had more interested parties than it needed.) What caused some extra angst for the team, outside of the actual construction of the rocket, was obtaining the necessary funding. Cybela said that UW-Platteville tried to support the project the best it could, but due to the lack of funding the state provides to its universities, the contributions made by the institution were limited. The team also received a bit of funding from the university’s Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement office, but a void remained. To put their funding concerns to rest, the team eventually obtained aid from the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, a group whose purpose is to supply monies to student groups working toward research and other forms of studies that are consistent with the goals and operations of NASA.
Another barrier that the team had to overcome was related to safety and regulations. Because of the size of the rocket, Cybela said the team had to obtain certification from a national amateur rocketry organization. The team also had to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration, the university, surrounding farms and property owners before each launch, whether it was a practice run or the project’s apex.
Once the all the necessary permits were provided, the only thing preventing the team from flying on its scheduled launch date was weather. (Due to firm safety codes, such a launch cannot take place during times of excessive wind or rain.) Thankfully, the conditions, although not overly pleasant to stand in, were fair enough for launch.
“It’s almost an expectation that the weather will be uncooperative,” Cybela said. “Beyond these limiting factors however, we are capable of launching in absolutely miserable conditions (ice, mud, knee-deep snow, negative wind chills, the works.)”
Supported by the efforts of mechanical engineers the Senior Design Rocketry team’s project flew according to plan. But how would the project fair if students from a wide-variety of majors participated in such event? Would it succeed? Cybela’s response to the question was a resound “yes!”
“It is our deep desire to see projects of this scale and type become cross disciplinary,” he explained. “A rocket requires the skills and support from many technical fields, and we would have benefitted greatly from the help of software and electrical engineers. Going the extra mile, I’d like to see involvement from business and art students as well – because management, team organization, and marketing are half the battle when it comes to funding and project execution.”
Given his recently established vocation, it’s no surprise that Cybela views rockets as an extremely important part of society. But just how far (or high) does he think the vehicle could take mankind? Incredibly far.
“For me, a rocket is one of the greatest symbols of human achievement,” he said. “They are the only vehicles which are capable of escaping gravity, and demonstrate what we are capable of doing when united by common purpose.”
Cybela continued, “In a broader scope; I believe that investments of space technologies have the potential to yield huge economic returns while also improving the quality of life for people across the earth. Think of all the useful technologies which would not have existed today if it were not for investments in space.”
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense, Student programs