Michigan Engineers build what they need, and what Parker Trombley and his team needed was a competition.
Trombley, a senior in the College of Engineering, is a founder and member of Michigan Vertical Flight Technology (MVFT), a multidisciplinary student design team for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. With the increasing interest in commercial eVTOL, the students wanted a program at U-M to help them understand the technology and marketplace for such vehicles and prepare them for the future of this industry.
Trombley and co-founders Brian Sandor, Cameron Gable, and Alex Cucos first needed to create an actual team, then create a place to compete with the technology they design. They did both of those in the last two years.
New technology, new opportunity
Inspired by the rapid growth of the new industry of Urban Air Mobility, MVFT was founded in early 2018 by U-M students to bring that technology to the university level. “It is our belief that for a new technology industry to prosper, there must be development of the students that will be the ones to bring the industry to maturity,” says Trombley.
Forming a new student team had one set of challenges. Addressing the lack of competition platform for eVTOL teams is another. That challenge the team took on in 2020.
Says the team, “There was no competition that we could find, so it became part of the mission of MVFT to start a movement to make that happen. We knew that to do so our young team needed more experience to understand what would be required of that form of competition, with the main points of concern being level of student involvement, project funding, and competition timeline.”
With this in mind, they designed internal aircraft requirements to simulate a competition environment, and spent the 2018-2019 school year conducting that experiment. When the fall semester began, the team met with the Vertical Flight Society (VFS) to explain their mission, which was met with great support and interest.
That year was a flurry: finishing up the past year’s project and working on the design of an eVTOL aircraft for medical supply delivery in rural areas of Ghana. Outside design, they took time to leverage the experts on campus, talking with various mentors across campus for guidance on designing a collegiate competition.
The project resulted in a proposal to the Vertical Flight Society in early 2020. Despite the pandemic chaos and uncertainty, the VFS responded that they were happy to adopt the collegiate design-build-fly competition. The resulting VFS Design-Build-Vertical Flight Competition in April 2021 will be open to all universities. “MVFT will be a proud competitor in the inaugural competition, and we are extremely excited to spend this academic year preparing to win,” says Trombley.
Over a recent fall weekend, the Avionics sub-team built a small-scale aircraft model so the team could validate the overall configuration, control scheme, and autopilot on a low-risk test platform. The Propulsion sub-team worked with the Power Systems sub-team to create an automated thrust test stand to test and gather data on motor and propeller combinations from a safe distance, allowing the team to optimize the propulsion system.
Next steps, probably during the week this time, would be to use the U-M wind tunnel to get dynamic thrust data and provide an early estimate of the overall aircraft performance. They hope to give the Power Systems sub-team more hands-on experience by designing and building a battery system using individual COTS battery cells, hoping to design a system that outperforms the best commercial battery pack available.
Calculating around COVID
The young team had a lot of administrative and operational plans to develop, things not very easy to do in the midst of a pandemic. Says Trombley, “Communication was a major concern coming into this school year, but we were extremely proud of how quickly our team adapted to online meetings and communication with advice from our technical faculty advisor, Professor Carlos Cesnik. Virtual collaboration is much more difficult than being able to be in the same room as each other. Our biggest challenge will be during manufacturing, which will be extremely slowed due to reduced work space, facility hours, and occupancy.”
Their biggest concern is a sizable hurdle: the ability to manufacture a test stand, battery pack, and overall aircraft in shared work spaces that now have reduced occupancy for social distancing, reduced availability due to teams staggering work days, and slower shipping parts due to the pandemic.
To overcome this, they are re-scaling and re-focusing their planning. “We have stepped up our planning this year far beyond what we have been able to do in the past. This has been in large part due to the new AERO 495 class with Professor George Halow, which is a pilot for a future series of classes that will offer student project teams much more guidance and understanding for Systems Engineering Leadership.”
Given their impressive trajectory over the last two years, the team will find ways to make all of this happen.
Getting folks involved
The team is currently seeking sponsors, from funding to gifts in kind to advice and expertise.
Their current funders are the College of Engineering, Ford Motor Company, and Siemens PLM Software. Says Trombley, “They provide amazing support through funding, providing feedback at our design reviews, and general council as we need it throughout the year. Our main focus is to curate new relationships with industry connections this year to learn how we can help each other, and use those relationships to take us into the following years of competing in, and winning, competitions together.”
*Some images were taken pre-pandemic. Students now wear masks when working together or meet remotely.