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A Chance to Fly

Aero-astro’s Beaverworks class offers undergrads an unusual challenge: designing drones for the military.
December 17, 2013

Tucked in a corner of Building 33’s basement, cordoned off with a length of rope, is a workspace reserved for MIT’s Beaverworks program—an aircraft design class for juniors and seniors, named after the school’s industrious mascot.

Every square inch of the space seems packed with parts. The walls support large spools of carbon fiber and Kevlar, from which students cut and shape small wings and fuselages. Lab benches are littered with prototypes and tools—some improvised, like a well-worn pancake griddle used to heat and mold composite materials.

The lab is a learning space for students in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, some of whom are building small, autonomous aircraft for the first time. Although seemingly modest, it also serves as a springboard for ideas that could eventually find real industrial or military applications.

Take, for instance, one of the group’s more innovative projects: a palm-sized expendable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), sealed within a protective canister that’s designed to launch out of a military jet’s flare dispenser at 30,000 feet. After rocketing out at about 300 Gs, the canister releases the UAV, which sprouts a pair of spring-loaded wings, helping it fly through the air.

The device, which students dubbed Locust (for “low-cost UAV sky telemetry system”), is meant to deploy like its namesake—in a swarm—to monitor the atmosphere and relay data to a ground station while drifting back to Earth.

Locust began as a commissioned assignment by Beaverworks’ collaborators, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force, which supplied a list of requirements. In the fall of 2010, students worked up a design for the UAV and then started building a prototype during IAP. Throughout, students met with Lincoln Lab and Air Force representatives for design reviews, much like a contractor presenting to a client.

“Students realize that these are not make-work exercises, but that they are real, cutting-edge projects, where there are customers who are depending on the results,” says aero-astro professor John Hansman, who is Beaverworks’ faculty lead.

The military and industry consult with college students, Hansman says, because not only are costs much lower, but projects like Locust can be too risky for an agency or company; the time and money invested may not pay off if an ambitious design fails.

“When you’re running as a ragtag student group, you’ve got nothing to lose,” says PhD candidate and student project leader Tony Tao, SM ’12. “Ideas that seem pretty foolish on paper, we’re ready to take on.”

When it came time to test whether Locust could withstand being shot out of a jet, the team took the prototype to the basement of Lincoln Lab, where they launched the device from a compressed-air cannon at 80 miles per hour. The UAV survived intact—a promising sign for the design. The students have since handed the project off to Lincoln Lab, which is planning to work with the Air Force to flight-test the UAVs from actual jets.

Now Tao and his students are wrapping up another project, assigned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Lincoln Laboratory: a modular UAV that can easily be configured to fit a given mission. Tao says developers often sink a lot of resources into a drone tailored to perform only one particular mission extremely well.

“It’s like designing a fork for spaghetti so well that you can���t use it to eat shrimp,” Tao says. A modular UAV, in contrast, would save research time and money.

In the fall of 2012, students came up with a UAV design that can quickly be sized up or down to meet three sets of specifications outlined by DARPA. It can be built as a small aircraft that can carry a payload of two to five pounds; an even smaller UAV that can be quickly assembled from a backpack; or a larger drone with a 14-foot wingspan and multiple sensors.

In September, the students completed successful flight tests of each UAV on a closed airfield in Shirley, Massachusetts. They are now working with Lincoln Lab researchers to place sensors on the UAVs. Beaverworks collaborators will be able to quickly adapt the UAV’s modular design to a particular mission’s requirements.

“The thing I enjoyed most was having real goals, real payloads, and real requirements from industry,” says aero-astro senior Libby Jones, who worked on the modular UAV project. That kind of industry connection, she says, is “pretty rare in school.”

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