Engineering Students Take Flight at Red Bull Flugtag Miami

With an aircraft themed after the smartphone video game Angry Birds, a team of College of Engineering students won the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Red Bull Flugtag Miami.

(November 13, 2012) — Their multicolored, fixed-wing aircraft flew for only a few seconds, traveling 36 feet before splashing into Miami’s Biscayne Bay. But despite the short-lived flight, the group of University of Miami College of engineering students competing at this year’s Red Bull Flugtag Miami accomplished what they set out to do: Win over the crowd.

“We wanted to go over the top and do something everybody would love,” explained Tom Knight, captain of the UM American Society of Mechanical Engineers squad that competed in the event, held November 3 at Miami Bayfront Park.

Organized by the popular energy drink Red Bull, which markets the slogan “Red Bull gives you wings,” flugtag—German for “flight day” or “flying day”—requires competitors to launch homemade, human-powered machines from a 30-foot-high pier, maintaining flight for as long as possible before landing in a body of water.

Knight and the 24 other team members themed their winged contraption on the Angry Birds, the popular smartphone video game in which players use a slingshot to launch birds at pigs stationed on or within various structures, with the goal of destroying the pigs.

“We took our own little spin on the game and decided to make an escape vehicle of sorts for the king pig,” said Knight, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major from Pompano Beach, Florida. With their bodies covered in paint and wings fastened to their arms, he and three other team members of the Hurricane Engineers’ Angry Birds pushed their 10-foot-long aircraft off a platform.

Their craft failed to cover even half the distance it was designed to travel—80 to 90 feet. A device that anchored the plane to the launching platform did not detach as it was supposed to, causing their flying machine to nosedive at takeoff. “We lost all forward speed,” Knight said.

Still, team members collected an honorable prize for their efforts, picking up the People’s Choice Award.

The entertainment aspect aside, designing the craft was a “trial run in systems engineering,” explained Knight. Using concepts of mechanical and aerospace engineering learned in associate professor Ge-Cheng Zha’s Flight Dynamics class, the students built a lightweight, yet strong well-balanced aircraft.

“We used aluminum for our main spar, the primary beam inside the wing, with a lot of material removed from the sides to reduce weight,” said Knight. Sheets of insulating foam and super-thin aluminum were used to make the airfoil, while painter’s drop cloth was used for the craft’s wing skin.

Much of the design process was done via computer, and aircraft parts were machined at Miami-based MWL Engineering, one of the team’s sponsors.

Zha, who recently won a NASA grant to develop a supersonic, bi-directional flying wing,  offered some input, helping the students select an airfoil. And the team also got suggestions from other College of engineering professors, taking their advice but making the final design decisions on their own.

“I wish we were able to keep it, but all of the crafts [at the competition] go right into a dumpster,” Knight lamented.

But he’s happy about continuing a tradition. This was UM’s third year at the Red Bull Flugtag Miami. “We’ll definitely be back,” he said.

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Engineering student Thien Tran pilots the 10-foot-long Angry Birds-themed aircraft, which won the People's Choice Award at this year's Red Bull Flugtag Miami.

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