May 062008
Authors: Alexandra Sieh

A team of undergraduate senior mechanical engineers on campus soared ahead in aerial vehicle design, bringing home the grand prize at the 2008 Undergraduate Space Research Symposium this year.

The project started in spring last year, and Allison Porter, Chris Lawhorn and Grant Rhoads spent the summer months developing and constructing their design for an unmanned aerial vehicle.

The technology and inexpensive construction attracted the attention of the judges at the symposium, winning the CSU students the grand prize.

First conceived as a proposal for the Colorado Space Grant Consortium the team won a grant, supplying them the money for the project.

Rhoads said the team initially hoped to make an aircraft that would have a two-axis camera and the capabilities to fly on its own and take pictures of designated areas during flight.

“I guess a good way to think about it is what your ears and eyes and brain usually do in keeping you balanced, we had to make a plane do that using electronics,” Rhoads said. “We have to make it do that up in the sky and then use a GPS to make it fly a certain pattern.”

“We had to design our own airplane from literally a blank sheet of paper to a first flight in seven weeks,” Lawhorn said.

After 10 weeks, the team had finished an aerial vehicle that not only won them the grand prize, but also created technological possibilities in unmanned aircrafts. The project cost a total of $1,100.

“Unmanned aerial vehicles are already used by the military now,” Rhoads said. “Our design allows understanding on how to make the system cheap, affordable and effective.”

The cheapest aircraft of its type, the team’s project cost significantly less than any other unmanned design out there, said Lawhorn.

This aerial vehicle and its grand prize have helped to bring CSU further into the engineering spotlight, shedding light on the university’s aerospace developments, which Lawhorn said are largely ignored.

“One of the things it does for CSU is create more of a name for the school in the aerospace industry,” Lawhorn said. “It helps bring CSU to be more important to the aerospace industry.”

The group utilized the help of two advisers, Paul Wilbur and Hiroshi Sakurai, both professors at CSU. Though their involvement was minimal, Wilbur and Sakurai provided encouragement and advice throughout the development and final assembly of the plane.

“They were people for us to fall back on if we felt like we needed to,” Porter said. “They gave us independence to make our own design decisions, helping us when they could and letting us make our own mistakes so we could learn from them.”

Both Wilbur and Sakurai congratulated the team on its end product and its success.

“I was surprised the airplane flew, and flew well,” said Sakurai. “It’s a very unique and successful airplane.”

Porter, Lawhorn and Rhoads all expect to graduate this year and said they are proud to leave this project behind for future students to look at and expound on.

“This project pushes the aerospace side of the school that isn’t seen as much,” said Rhoads. “Prospective students will see what we have done and hopefully attract more to the engineering program in the future.”

Staff writer Alexandra Sieh can be reached at

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