Curiosity stimulated: mission accomplished

Students design, build and test their own aircraft


It was an exciting moment for the students of Aeronautical & Precision Engineering at Inholland Delft University of Applied Sciences. After a year of working and building their own aircraft, the day to test it on the grounds of the model flying club in Rozenburg, has arrived. Would it be possible to keep the remote-controlled aircraft in the air and collect the necessary data? And maybe even, as icing on the cake, to drop the water balloon you brought with you from the cargo bay in such a way that a fire can be extinguished? 

The development and construction of the aircraft is part of the shift from 'classical' education to project-driven education, which incorporates applying theories learned into practice. Consequently students have to look for the necessary knowledge and skills to solve problems as they go. Moreover, says student Julian Petit, theory and practice are now much more closely related: “You can immediately apply what you learn in the lecture hall. That makes it all much more tangible. You see the effect of your calculations and remember the methods you have used better, because you have already applied them once.”

Super assignment
Because Julian is doing the second year of the program (in which this project takes place) for the second time, he can make a good comparison with the 'old' more traditional educational approach. “Last year it was much more theoretical. Additionally, it was a corona year, I only remember from practical assignments a test on material strength, and that also went via a live stream. This is really a super cool assignment and I really looked forward to the test flights and of course the 'real' flying day. We have been working hard on this for three quarters of a year and I thought it was very exciting whether we would see the result of our efforts.”

The assignment

The second-year students spent the entire academic year designing, building and testing their aircraft. Divided over two semesters, work was done in groups of about 15 students. Given the size of the aircraft and its high degree of complexity, the aircraft was split into several parts (see image): the fuselage (blue), the tail (yellow) and the wing (green). Four to six students worked on each part. The gray parts are made by teachers in such a way to allow for a modular design. In addition, numerous components have been added to validate the mission and flight characteristics.

Melissa Solomon is originally from Germany and moved to Delft for the English-taught version of the program: Aeronautical & Precision Engineering. Although in the 'Dutch' version Luchtvarttechnologie  much is already done in English, due to the international character of the field. Melissa: “I had always been very interested in this field of study and became more and more convinced that this is what I wanted to do. In and around Germany you don't have many options, especially if you want to follow the course in English, so this was the best option for me. And I actually like it even better than I expected.”

Teamwork experience
Just like Julian, Melissa experienced the practical approach of the assignment as very instructive. She particularly mentions learning and working in teams. “Each group has a coach who knows what a good design should look like and who can provide guidance. But in both semesters we also researched and learned a lot ourselves. I think that is good for our development and certainly also for experiencing what teamwork means. You learn to rely on each other instead of 'the knowledge of the teacher'. The social aspect is also very important, you learn to communicate well with each other. If you only focus on the theory, you are always working alone, you don't work together. While in your future job you also have to work with others.”

Melissa is so enthusiastic about the project ('a very exciting thing to do') that she always looks forward to getting started. Even on Monday morning, she says with a wink. “Take the cargo bay: it had to be designed as efficiently as possible and weigh less than 1 kilo. I have never had to build a mechanism with so many arms, hinges, etc.! We also had to do the programming ourselves, for that we had to look up all the codes and figure out how to implement them, for example for the sensors. It was really great to be able to learn and implement all that as a team.”

As an experienced model airplane builder, I know what it takes to get things flying. I think it's great to see such useful learning objectives and so many disciplines come together around model flying: designing, calculating, building, adding electronics, the 'water balloon drop', you name it. A complex whole. I am really impressed with both the level of these second-year bachelor students and what they have achieved in such a short time. Even many experienced model airplane builders wouldn't have been able to do that, so hats off to you. Certainly a compliment to the team of teachers for this ambitious plan and for establishing the modular concept, within which students could thrive.

Winfried de Vries, Royal Dutch Aviation Association

The big day
On Monday, May 15th,  all aircraft successfully took off. A total of 11 flights were made and all were successful. All aircraft performed exactly or almost exactly as calculated and managed to collect the necessary data. From a technical point of view a very successful day.

It was also a success for everyone on a personal level. The enthusiasm and pride were evident – and euphoria was shared as the planes took off. There were maiden flights and measurement flights combined with the fire-extinguishing simulation. About half of the teams succeeded in the latter, dropping the water balloon. That may seem like an easy task, but it is quite complex: a mechanism must hold the balloon without breaking it and release it at the desired moment, whereby the hatches also open.

Naturally, the students also ran into problems. For example, small assembling and connection errors were made. For a group a cable turned out to be incorrectly installed. A small mistake, but it takes some time to find the issue, to take everything apart and reassemble the plane. The weather also did not cooperate as hoped, especially in the afternoon when it started raining with increasing wind levels. It was then decided to shorten the program and conclude it with an aerobatics flight. The 'strongest' aircraft was challenged to the limits of the flight envelope with high turns, a barrel roll and fast-flying, among other manoeuvres.

Despite the cold, the atmosphere was completely restored and the approximately 130 attendees were cheering and roaring – the emotion and discharge after a year of hard efforts from everyone. The fact that the wind blew the roof off a tent did not spoil the fun. It was soon joked that the roof came off both literally and figuratively. What follows is data analysis, presentations and evaluation, but the day ended very satisfied and fulfilled for everyone.

A plane was landing when I walked onto the site, and what amazed me was the cheering and the enthusiasm. It was nice to see how passionate everyone was working on the planes and all the technology that comes with it. And with students from 34 different nationalities talking about how it all works, I became even more impressed. Such a 'simple plane' is really complex! I admire the second-year students, especially when I see and hear the insights they have acquired in this project. I also really liked the aspect of 'electric flying'. That is still in the future, although I understood that not all planes are suited to be electric. It is a development that will continue and is also necessary – how cool is it that we as Inholland can contribute to this? Finally, what struck me was the expertise of the teachers, led by Rick van der Ploeg. They really know very well what they are doing and are at least as fanatical as the students. That was evident from how everyone was jumping together and shouting: 'yes, it flies'!

Mieke van den Berg - Executive Board of Inholland University of Applied Sciences