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KU aircraft design team prepares for competitions

Thursday, March 08, 2012

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LAWRENCE — Members of the University of Kansas School of Engineering Jayhawk Heavy Lift team are employing a technique that’s literally cutting-edge as they prepare their remote control aircraft for two competitions this spring. First up is the SAE Aero Design West competition, set for March 16-18 in Van Nuys, Calif. KU also plans to compete in the SAE Aero Design East, set for April 26-28 in Marietta, Ga.

“We have a new laser cutter that allows us to do more advanced design work,” said Justin Howard, a senior in aerospace engineering and captain of this year’s Jayhawk Heavy Lift team. “We can cut out lightening holes in each rib, which means we can make the structure a lot lighter and maintain enough strength. To try to do all that by hand (like in years past without the laser cutter) would’ve been a mess.”

The sleeker design is expected to help the team improve on last year’s performance. The Jayhawk aircraft carried the most weight at the 2011 competition but broke its landing gear on touchdown, nullifying their highest score. The KU team still finished third overall, but Howard is confident this year the team can fare better.

“We’re optimistic. We’re working to iron out all the little bumps in the road as we prepare for the west competition,” Howard said. “We think we’ll do really well and be even better prepared for the east competition, which is typically a stiffer test.”

In addition to the flight tests, teams are judged on a technical report, presentation and inspection of their aircraft. Once teams hit the airfield for the flight competition, they face another set of challenges. The aircraft cannot exceed 55 pounds, so teams strive to make the body of the plane as light as possible, allowing for a heavier payload and a chance at a higher score. After takeoff, the plane must complete one full circle of the field before touching down in a 400-foot landing zone. The aircraft must land completely intact for the flight to be considered successful and the team to receive points.

The team’s new laser cutter is just one of several changes for this year’s squad. The group also has a new home – an aircraft hangar that KU owns at the Lawrence Municipal Airport – and Jayhawk Heavy Lift is now fully run by students, with no direct ties to a senior design class.

KU’s Transportation Research Institute (TRI) was instrumental in getting the club off the ground for this year’s competition, providing travel funds and money to purchase the key equipment, such as the laser cutter. The team is competing under the name “Honea Hawks” in recognition of TRI’s director, Bob Honea.

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