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Mechanical engineering team rules the skies in solar flight competition

by John R. Karman III, communications and marketing last modified May 08, 2014 02:21 PM

There were four competitors, and only two got airborne for any real period of time.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of excitement at the fourth annual Mickey R. Wilhelm Solar Flight Competition held April 18 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

When it was over, a team of four doctoral students studying mechanical engineering at UofL’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering successfully guided their scratch-built zeppelin the length of the football field and on to victory.

For their efforts, the team won $400 in the contest, which is staged by the Conn Center for Renewable Energy Research. The competition calls for teams of students from Speed School to design and build scale, solar-powered aircraft.

The contest “gives us unique experiences we don’t get in the classroom,” said Kyle Hord from the winning team. His teammates were Andrew Work, Daniel Porter and Trung Hoang.

Their zeppelin was powered by solar cells that the team bought on eBay.

The Conn Center puts up $400 in seed money for each team that participates in the solar flight competition, which is named for Speed School dean emeritus Mickey Wilhelm.

“We want to inspire people to take on the challenge,” said Conn Center assistant director Andrew Marsh.

And the onus for building each aircraft rests squarely on the students, who work on the project outside of class time. Each team has a faculty mentor, Marsh said, but the mentor is “supposed to be hands-off.”

Jerry Willing, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the Speed School, serves as faculty director of the solar flight competition. He said students usually devote several hours a week to the project, beginning in January.

“There’s no single correct answer” to the question of how to build the best aircraft, Willing said. “It’s good to see the evolution of their designs. They can really spread their wings on this and show what they can do.”

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