A team of eight University of Central Florida aerospace engineering students designed, built and flew the best remote-controlled aircraft in the United States in an international competition sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Besting 90 teams that made it to the final round of AIAA’s 2021 Design Build Fly competition, UCF’s aircraft achieved a virtual tie with the winning team from Dayananda Sagar College of Engineering in India, which was given a tie-breaking advantage by contest judges, according to AIAA.

Teammates David Silva-Melendez ’21, Harshavardhan Bangaru ’21, Jack Faysash ’21, Dillon Graves ’21, Mariangelo La Rosa ’21, Kyle Ramos ’21, Andrew Schroeder ’21 and Devin Unterreiner ’21, who all received aerospace engineering degrees this month, spent their senior year designing, building, testing and flying the aircraft they nicknamed The Knightmobile.

The competition entry also served as the team’s senior design capstone project, a requirement for graduation from the UCF College of Engineering and Computer Science. See a short video clip of a Knightmobile test flight.

AIAA’s Design Build Fly competition provides university students with hands-on aerospace engineering experience and a way to test their skills against teams from around the world. Teams were challenged to create aircrafts with a deployable surveillance subsystem. Because of the pandemic, teams were asked to submit detailed reports as well as videos of their projects in place of an in-person event.

Against the 91 finalists that included schools such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Georgia Institute of Technology, UCF’s team successfully performed four different missions that tested the aircraft’s ability to take off, fly, remain aerodynamically stable, perform surveillance, deliver a payload and land flawlessly.

This year marks the best result in UCF’s 10-year history competing in AIAA’s Design Build Fly.

“From the get-go, we set a winning mentality to place first in the competition,” says team leader Silva-Melendez. “We gave everyone a role to do and attacked the design problem with a divide and conquer mentality. With the pandemic, this year’s competition proved to be extra challenging in terms of communication, manufacturing, pace of work, and teamwork.”

As with any engineering project built from the ground up, UCF’s team overcame some obstacles including early flight stability challenges and, later, testing failures with the payload.

“We relied on our determination to win, and our engineering principles to eventually make the system work within the aircraft,” says Silva-Melendez.

Despite the social-distancing constraints and strict competition deadlines, the team collectively spent more than 50 hours a week to bring the project to fruition, which included weekly remote team meetings, testing the aircraft and all of its components on a weekly basis, and performing test flights in an Apopka airfield for remote-controlled planes.

Silva-Melendez credits faculty advisor George Loubimov, of UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who attended all weekly team meetings; and UCF’s AIAA student chapter for provided funding, materials, and historical contest knowledge.

“The fact that it was part of an academic capstone project significantly raised the workload for the team,” says Loubimov. “It also created human resource limitations, compared to other teams competing,” noting that many aircrafts from other universities were built by student clubs. UCF’s senior design academic requirement meant that no more than eight could be on the team.

This isn’t the first accolade UCF’s Design, Build, Fly team has received. They also won the Best in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering senior design project out of 65 projects in the category in the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Senior Design Showcase on April 23. The showcase was judged by UCF engineering and computer science alumni who are industry experts in their disciplines.

Four members of the team have already landed engineering jobs.

AIAA is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Design, Build, Fly this year. The competition was created in 1996 to give students a hands-on experience and put their analytical skills to the test. UCF is involved in other AIAA activities, including the student chapter of AIAA. In addition, UCF participated in the 2021 AIAA Region II Student Conference, where mechanical and aerospace engineering students took home three top awards, including first place in the undergraduate category for best paper.

Story contributor: Marisa Ramiccio, UCF Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering