Soaring High
For 13 years Oklahoma State University students have been successful at designing, building and flying remote-controlled airplanes as part of the aerospace engineering curriculum.

A remote-controlled airplane soaring in a blue sky

The Pterosoar aircraft soars high in the sky during its record-breaking flight in 2007. Image Credit: Andy Arena

Students' creations have competed each year in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Design Build Fly competition and performed well. In the last five years, Oklahoma State's planes have placed in the top five at the AIAA contest, and in three of those years the school's teams took both first and second place.

Oklahoma aerospace engineering professor Andy Arena and students in the university's mechanical and aerospace engineering program raised the bar in 2005 and began designing airplanes to compete for world records. Since then, Arena's students have broken three world records and are making plans to break more.

"The goal of our program has always been to provide our students with quality hands-on learning experiences," Arena said. "I can think of no better way to give an aerospace engineering student that experience than to have them actually design, build and fly a plane."

The students' projects are funded, in part, by a grant through NASA and the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium. The Space Grant Consortium is a national network of colleges and universities supporting and enhancing science and engineering education, research and public outreach efforts. The project supports NASA's goal of strengthening the agency's and the nation's future workforce.

Arena, who is deputy director of the Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium, said the most significant record the student-made planes broke was the endurance record for an electric aircraft weighing less than 5 kilograms. Endurance flight records measure continuous time aloft. This feat was significant because the previous record of 10 hours, 38 minutes and 30 seconds stood for nine years. That record was set in 1998 by a team in Switzerland.

OSU students and their advisor stand outdoors as one student holds the airplane they built

The Dragonfly aircraft, which broke two world records in 2006, was designed and built by Oklahoma State students Dustin Gamble and Thomas Hays and their advisor Andy Arena (center). Image Credit: Andy Arena

On June 24, 2006, the record-breaking endurance flight by Oklahoma State's "Dragonfly" aircraft lasted 12 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds. The record was recognized as one of the Most Memorable Aviation Records of 2006 by the National Aeronautic Association.

The endurance record was actually the Dragonfly's second world record. The aircraft had broken the record for distance to a goal and return a few weeks earlier on June 2, 2006. It flew 144.42 kilometers, or 89.84 miles. The record to beat was 80.43 kilometers, or 49.97 miles, set in Estonia in 2005.

Designing and building airplanes that break world records is quite impressive, and for two students who worked on the Dragonfly project it has led to opportunities to work in the aerospace industry. Thomas Hays worked as an intern at Lockheed Martin in Palmdale, Calif., the summer after the project. Hays is now working on his master's degree and plans to return to Lockheed Martin for another internship this summer. Dustin Gamble is also working on his master's degree and as an intern at Lockheed Martin this summer.

The Pterosoar is the latest Oklahoma State record-breaker. The Pterosoar was a joint project between Oklahoma State and California State University Los Angeles. Oklahoma State students were responsible for designing and building the aircraft, while Cal State LA students were responsible for the hydrogen fuel cell system that powered the plane.

On its record-breaking flight, the Pterosoar flew 120.05 kilometers, or 74.60 miles, in three hours and only used one-fourth of its energy capacity. The team estimates the plane could fly 500 kilometers with a fully pressurized tank.

"This is a novel aircraft propulsion method, and fuel cells contain more energy than batteries, which would allow an aircraft powered by one to potentially fly longer and farther," Arena said.

Arena and his students are already making plans to build another aircraft in the summer of 2008 and expect to break more world records in the future.

Related Resources
NASA Space Grant Consortium   →
Oklahoma Space Grant Consortium   →
Oklahoma State University Aerospace Design   →
AIAA Design Build Fly Competition   →
NASA Education Web Site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services