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Student engineers shoot to No. 1 in airplane design-and-fly contest

AeroDesign Team creates remote-controlled aircraft that's light, strong and fast

by Ryan Shaw

USC students flew rings around their competition at an international radio-controlled aircraft contest, besting 71 other collegiate teams.

The USC AeroDesign Team finished first at the annual Cessna/Raytheon Missile Systems Student Design/Build/Fly competition in Wichita, Kan., beating teams from 29 states and 15 countries. The April competition consists of four different missions that test airplane speed, maneuverability, lightness and strength.

The USC team — which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year — has consistently finished in the top five in the competition since 2000. The team finished second in 2010, and last won the whole contest in 1998.

AeroDesign remote control aircraft team

The USC AeroDesign Team won the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Design, Build, Fly competition in April.

Built to fly

The team built nine planes before perfecting its design for the Kansas competition. “After each design iteration, changes are made to specific parts of the plane,” said faculty advisor Charles Radovich, lecturer in USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

Students constructed the fuselage mostly with Kevlar, and used carbon fiber and foam to keep the airplane light yet strong. “Our aircraft weighed only 1.88 pounds,” said Samantha Westall, aerospace engineering student and program manager for the AeroDesign Team. “We were one of the lightest and that gave us an advantage throughout all the missions.”

Radovich was quick to praise the design and construction. “The plane was a beauty and one of the best engineered aircraft the team has built,” he said.

Putting the plane to the test

The competition required four tests:

  • A taxi mission, which required that the plane successfully traverse a rough field
  • A timed empty flight mission. The team’s plane completed seven laps in four minutes, making it the fastest plane in this event.
  • Two missions that required the plane to transport weight; the last mission was timed for speed.

A cast of students and more

The USC AeroDesign Team is among the largest design teams at USC with about 50 active members, including students from all engineering disciplines. Five faculty advisors, alumni and industry engineers support the team. The pilot for the AeroDesign Team was Wyatt Sadler, advisor to the team and a founding member 25 years ago.

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