Engineering launches micro-air vehicle program

Those micro-air vehicles flying reconnaissance missions into combat zones or into nuclear spill sites to detect radiation someday may be designed at UAB’s School of Engineering.

Senior engineering students were challenged to build a MAV weighing less than 10 grams and powered by a four-volt battery.

Their recent test flight was scheduled to last one minute, but it fell short, joked Roy Koomullil, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, by about a minute. “Even so, we consider this one a success because it was the first MAV designed at UAB.”

Koomullil, along with Gary Cheng, Ph.D., an associate professor of mechanical engineering and mentor for the student design group, took the use of propellers off the table and required the students to design flapping wings using industry software called STAR CCM+. It was a decision aimed to help the students soar after graduation.

“Industry and the government labs all use computational simulations before they fabricate the model or the prototype,” Koomullil said. “It’s important for the students to learn simulation before they enter the workforce, and this STAR CCM+ software gives them valuable experience.”

The software, made available at no cost to UAB by CD-adapco, provided students with 3-D simulation capability needed to design and test the wings and analyze the complexities of four-winged flight from nearly every angle.

“There is no formula for predicting how much thrust you can get through counter-rotating wings and how these flexible wings are going to interact with one another,” said Dave Cooper, class-project leader. “The wings themselves provide the thrust and the lift, and their interactions forcefully propel the air to the rear and force the vehicle forward. If we didn’t have STAR CCM+, we would be shooting blind.”

Cooper, winner of CD-adapco’s 2011 Academic Paper Contest, for his senior design project “Performance of a Proposed Micro-Aerial Vehicle Design,” is no stranger to flight. He regularly flew in C-130s as a Marine Corps staff sergeant. Immediately after graduating UAB in May 2011 he landed a job with the university’s Center for Biophysical Sciences and Engineering, where he works on freezers for the International Space Station. Cooper, even more than his teammates, expected the MAV to succeed.

“It was difficult; the whole thing was time-intensive and hard,” Cooper said. “So I have a coupled sense of disappointment and relief that it’s over.”

On a positive note, Cooper recognizes his work is the future of UAB’s MAV program.

“I learned a lot, but if I learned it and it flew out the window without propelling any other students further, then that would be pretty disappointing.”

Instead, the future of flight at UAB is grounded in Cooper’s learned experiences, and that’s a success.

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