After nearly a year of work, CSUN's Aero Design Team's effort finally paid off.
After nearly a year of work, the CSUN Aero Design team’s efforts finally paid off. Photo courtesy of Roy Lara.

After working for almost a year on a three-vehicle firefighting airplane system — including a 40-pound cargo aircraft— and transitioning from fully virtual classes to in person, the 27 engineering students on the CSUN Aero Design team finally saw their hard work pay off last month at the competition’s finals.

The CSUN team went head-to-head against teams from prestigious universities in China, Egypt, India and Mexico in the competition’s most challenging category — the Advanced Class — triumphing by placing second in the Mission Performance category, which tests how well the three-vehicle system can perform together in a firefighting scenario, and capturing third place in the Technical Presentation. These made up two of the three main categories in the SAE International Aero Design West competition, held April 8-10 at the Apollo Airfield in Van Nuys.

Students stand by an airplane model in an open field.
Sponsored by SAE International, the Aero Design West competition is meant to challenge students with a real-life engineering problem. Photo courtesy of Roy Lara.

Sponsored by SAE International (formerly the Society of Automotive Engineers), the Aero Design West competition is designed to provide undergraduate and graduate engineering students with a real-life engineering challenge, and exposure to situations that engineers face in real-life work environments.

“Competing in an international competition can keep the team motivated and united towards success and triumph,” said CSUN professor Shadi Mahjoob, the team’s supervisor and head of the CSUN Aero Design program.

As part of a capstone two-semester design course, students participate in the competition to gain experience in design, simulation, manufacturing, assembly and testing of a small, lightwing aircraft.

“The students learn and apply related scientific fundamentals, modeling and simulation, manufacturing and testing, risk analysis, [teamwork], time and cost management, and systemic design,” said Mahjoob, who also teaches heat transfer and applied heat transfer in the mechanical engineering department.

Aircraft in the sky
This three-vehicle aircraft system was designed to help combat California wildfires. Photo courtesy of Roy Lara.

The team’s primary goal was to design an air and ground vehicle system that can reach remote locations and help in fighting wildfires in California, without compromising any lives, according to team captain Roy Lara.

“For the first time in the 35 years this [capstone] project has existed at CSUN, this year’s Aero team decided to step out of their comfort zone and manufacture something outside of a conventional aircraft like a passenger airliner,” said Lara, a graduating senior in electrical engineering. “We decided to go with a revolutionary new design, a blended wing-body aircraft, part of the flying-wing family, for our primary aircraft.”

The system they designed consists of the primary cargo aircraft that weighs around 40 pounds when loaded, and a smaller aircraft attached to the primary one called a powered autonomous delivery aircraft — similar to a delivery drone — which carries an autonomous groundwater transport vehicle, a small car that carries and delivers water by itself.

One student is carried on the shoulders of another while screaming in joy
CSUN’S Aero Design team celebrates their accomplishments at the Apollo Airfield in Van Nuys. Photo courtesy of Roy Lara.

In addition to their high placement in the SAE International Aero Design West competition, the CSUN Aero Design team also impressed judges on campus this month at the CSUN Senior Design Project Showcase — sponsored by the College of Engineering and Computer Science — where they won the college’s Top Senior Design Project Display and the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Top Overall Oral Presentation award.

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