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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordia students who build airplanes in the basement

SAE AeroDesign teammates describe what goes into preparing their pint-sized craft for international competition
January 17, 2017
By Andrew Jeyaraj

Grad student Leroy Coelho, a member of Concordia's SAE AeroDesign team, carefully shapes a wing. Grad student Leroy Coelho, a member of Concordia's SAE AeroDesign team, carefully shapes a wing.

Most days, in a small lab located in the basement of the B Annex Building on Bishop Street, you’ll find a few members of the SAE Concordia AeroDesign team hard at work building radio-controlled (RC) aircraft.

Currently, the group of around 20 undergraduate and graduate students is preparing for SAE Aero Design West in Fort Worth, Texas, in March, where they'll face off against teams from top universities around the world. Concordia’s team has an impressive track record, with two podium finishes at the 2015 SAE Aero Design East competition.

Matt Gruber, a mechanical engineering student in his final year, is the AeroDesign coordinator for SAE Concordia. Kyle Petrunik is president as well as the lead aircraft designer, spearheading this year’s design effort.

The experiential-learning balancing act

What is the objective of your project?

Matt Gruber: To design, engineer and manufacture a remote-controlled fixed-wing aircraft to meet the specifications of the competition rules.

This year, the rule set requires us to design an airplane that simulates a passenger airline, with tennis balls being the passengers. Teams that can optimize their aircraft to lift the most amount of passengers and cargo receive more points during the five flight rounds.

Kyle Petrunik: The planes are usually built out of aluminium, wood and plastic, and they're powered either by electric motors or combustion engines.

What are some of the key challenges you face in your work?

KP: Designing aircraft takes years of experience, knowledge and dedication. All of us are full-time students, so we have to balance the workload of school and the knowledge we need to design a fully functional aircraft within a year. Time management becomes the challenge — how best to learn the things you need to learn and stay on top of your studies.

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to get involved in this work?

MG: I used to be uncomfortable flying until after my first Co-op engineering internship at Bombardier. I was lucky to have a great boss, an interesting job in the Loads Department, and passionate and friendly co-workers.

Right after that internship, I got on a 737 aircraft to visit a friend in Wyoming. After gaining experience with people who design and build planes — and after learning a bit about how they work — my discomfort while flying was replaced with relaxed joy as we navigated through the massive Rockies.

When I got back to school, I had a class in the machine shop, where we first get hands-on building experience. Michael Rembacz, who runs the Engineering Design and Manufacturing Lab (EDML) machine shop, told me about SAE. He arranged a meeting and Kyle Petrunik showed me around.

Here was a chance to get direct experience with a fun team, right on campus, who actually know how to build a working RC aircraft from the ground up. I could apply the things I learned during my internship to help design the plane that first year and fit as much as I could in my brain about what makes an aircraft come together and fly.

Concordia SAE AeroDesign teammates assemble a regular class aircraft in the B Annex basement workshop. Concordia SAE AeroDesign teammates assemble a regular class aircraft in the B Annex basement workshop.

What advice would you give to students interested in joining this field?

MG: For students looking to join SAE, the best way is to come by in the summer or early fall. Bring a positive attitude, humility and a desire to learn. Find out when the meetings are and show up regularly, ask thoughtful questions and read to stay ahead of what's going on.

Summer is a research and development time for us, early fall is usually the design and prototyping time, then, come winter, we're mainly building.

I only joined SAE Aero in my third year because I wanted to focus on classes, to make sure I got decent grades during my first few years. No matter when you join, it’s a great way to learn in a team setting and gain skills that are really useful for class and for work, such as Computer Aided Drawing.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

MG: Concordia gives teams like ours tons of support. We have a wonderful office and workshop space, access to a lot of tools and know-how and the EDML is supportive and helpful.

There are several passionate and involved engineers who have their dream job teaching high-tech manufacturing and they help us achieve our potential to represent Concordia at the competitions.

The engineering departments and the Engineering and Computer Science Association also help us out a lot with our finances, making sure we can buy all the right tools and materials that we need and giving us enough money to get us down to the United States each year.

The diverse student base of Concordia makes for a fun team who get along and the competition is an experience that stands apart from the rest of our degrees.

The Concordia SAE AeroDesign team. The Concordia SAE AeroDesign team.


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