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Competition takes off

Engineering students pack a lot of power into a little plane

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  • Story by Chris Blose
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: July 18, 2007
remote-controlled airplane

Engineering students didn't just add MU decals to their model plane for competition; they also custom built power and mechanical systems to make it fly.

Things were a little tense in the van. Adviser and engineering Professor Craig Kluever was cruising 70 mph down the highway while aircraft design team chairman Michael Pochek and fellow students were tinkering with battery cells for a remote-controlled plane in the back. A wrong move with the volatile cells could spell disaster. But the right moves could spell success.

The daring paid off. Pochek and fellow members of Mizzou’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) group took second place at the AIAA’s student design competition in Dayton, Ohio, in June.

In Dayton, they competed against eight other student groups from around the country to see who could pack the most power into a remote-controlled airplane. The top four teams presented their findings at a professional conference in Cincinnati in July.

The plane was an off-the-shelf model recommended by the Air Force, which also provided funding.

Pochek and Frederick working on the plane

Students Michael Pochek and Paul Frederick make adjustments before Mizzou's plane takes flight on July 7, 2007 at a flying field in Columbia, Mo.

“The outside is the same for everybody,” Pochek says, “but everything inside is custom-built.” That includes a telemetry unit for airspeed, altitude and other sensing measurements; a camera unit to target points on the ground; and lithium polymer batteries for propulsion and power, as opposed to a traditional gas unit.

The choice of electric power paid off, too. A major component of the judging was how much power the engine dissipated, and Mizzou’s plane delivered 1,000 to 1,100 watts continuously for about 10 minutes, Pochek says. That was almost double what most teams’ engines produced. 

To make it all work — and to overcome problems such as melting wires, dying batteries and overweight components — the students spent plenty of all-nighters and 40-hour stretches of lab work in preparation. Things really didn’t come together until the end.

“It all started working the way we wanted it to on the last day of competition,” Pochek says. “It’s very rewarding to see it actually work.”

Read more in:  Beyond CampusScience & Technology

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012