UT Martin engineering students win third internationally at SAE Aero Design East competition

Pictured with their aircraft are (l-r) Dr. Doug Sterrett, professor of engineering and team superviser; Gauri Patel, of Humboldt; Junior Overacker, of Jackson; Taylor Higgason, of Petal, Miss.; Josh Johnson, of Martin; Matthew Laudermilk, of Milan; Wesley Cox, of Paris; and Cameron Westbrook, of Nashville. The students are seniors concentrating in mechanical engineering with the exception of Westbrook, who is a sophomore.

Seven students from the University of Tennessee at Martin competed in the international SAE Aero Design East competition, held March 11-13 in Ft. Worth, Texas, and won third place overall behind Georgia Tech and a national team from Poland. The team also won second place in the flight category.

Seventy-five teams from universities, colleges and technical schools around the world competed in the annual event, which is sponsored by professional aerospace firms including Lockheed Martin. The UT Martin team competed against 16 other teams in the “advanced” category, and was the only school present without an independent aerospace program or related major.

“The purpose of the competition is to engage and explore all these little engineering techniques we’ve learned over the past four years and really apply them to the real world in a real-world situation,” said Cameron Westbrook, a sophomore from Nashville and the only non-senior teammate. “The competition really pushes us to do the most we can with the skills we have.”

Teammates Wesley Cox, of Paris; Taylor Higgason, of Petal, Miss.; Josh Johnson, of Martin; Matthew Laudermilk, of Milan; Gauri Patel, of Humboldt; Junior Overacker, of Jackson; and Westbrook, built a radio-controlled aircraft from the ground up based on guidelines determined by the competition objectives.

The objective of the 2016 competition was to construct an aircraft capable of delivering four two-pound expellable packages and carrying 15 pounds of static payload, using only a 0.46-cubic-inch engine. The team’s finished aircraft is approximately 64 inches long with a nine-foot wingspan and can carry a maximum of roughly 32 pounds.

“When they (the team) started introduction to aerodynamics in September, most of them didn’t even know what the parts of an airplane were, so they’ve come a long, long way in a short amount of time,” said Dr. Doug Sterrett, professor of engineering and team supervisor. Sterrett also serves as the team’s competition pilot.

While the SAE Aero Design East competition is held in the spring, the work really begins in the fall of the preceding year. Conceptual designs must be completed by early November, with a detailed design finished over Christmas break. All seven students spent their Christmas holiday on campus designing, building and testing their aircraft. A complete technical report, the first phase of competition, was due following the holidays.

The second phase of competition takes place in the days leading up to the flight demonstration, when the team must give a complete oral report to a panel of leading industry experts. The actual on-site flight competition is the third and final phase and includes a score based on the weight of an empty aircraft, the maximum payload weight, flight capabilities and the number and accuracy of packages dropped onto a designated target.

While Sterrett pilots the plane, the student crew monitors video-feed from the aircraft, satellite positioning, telemetry data, battery power, air and ground speed, direction and a host of other factors to guide Sterrett over the target. When the aircraft is in position, Cox releases the packages to land in the target area. The UT Martin team left the field with the most impressive package accuracy.

“It’s an entire engineering system,” said Sterrett. “It’s a control system, a video system, a package drop system, a telemetry system, and engine system. There’s a lot more to it than just an aircraft.”

Seniors in UT Martin’s engineering program may choose from a variety of senior design projects, but the airplane design project is one of the more intricate and unpredictable options.

“No matter what happens, you’ve got to be ready to fix it. You’ve got to think on your toes and get everything ready to go up again,” said Laudermilk. The team believes in “Murphy’s Laws,” which say that anything bad that can happen, will happen. Flight tests are a necessary component to prepare for the final competition, but every flight is a risk. The team’s aircraft crashed once before the trip to Houston and was badly damaged, requiring hours of repair. However, this risk appeals to many students.

“Everything’s more dangerous with this project. It’s more exciting, more challenging,” said Cox. “The reason I chose this is because I thought since it’s a smaller and more close-knit team, I thought we could be more competitive in the long run by working well together.”

This is UT Martin’s fourth year of participation in the SAE Aero Design East competition. In 2015 the students placed third overall and third in the “technological report” and “closest to target” categories, and was the highest-ranked American team.

The 2017 team, assembled this fall, will use the current aircraft for testing to determine their own original design and learn from the team before them.

Hands-on, practical experience is a key component in a UT Martin education, and these students will enter the workforce with a unique advantage over untested applicants. Not only do they have the classroom education necessary to enter their field of choice, they also have proven abilities to back up theoretical knowledge.

UT Martin has prepared them for the world beyond its classroom walls, and they will enter the workforce champions in their own right.

The UT Martin engineering degree program is housed within the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences. For more information, contact the Department of Engineering at 731-881-7571 or schedule a campus tour at utm.edu/advantage/tour.php.