The engine of a small, student-built plane roared to life as about 50 students and professors gathered to watch it complete a seven-meter-long track. The fourth-year aerospace engineering students who made the plane cringed as its engine stalled, causing their aircraft to loop midair over the finish line and crash into the ground.
“Oh, no,” said one of the students when he realized the plane’s tail and two motors were broken.
On Friday, five teams of students raced small autonomous airplanes they built this spring in a fluid mechanics and aerodynamics laboratory class, said Hamarz Aryafar, an aerospace engineering lecturer, who taught the course.
Although many teams had unsuccessful trial runs, Aryafar said he thinks failure is a part of the learning process.
“There (are) always going to be issues that crop up and it’s a matter of how you can face those problems and challenges and overcome them,” he said.
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering 157A is the only course at UCLA in which aerospace engineering students have the chance to apply their engineering skills rather than just design vehicles on paper, said Adrienne Lavine, a professor and vice chair of undergraduate affairs in the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering.
Although the class is not a part of the capstone design project for aerospace engineering, Lavine said she thinks it is an important “capping off experience.”
“When you’re just solving homework problems, everything seems so simple,” Lavine said. “(In real life), lots of things can and do go wrong, and you have to solve those problems.”
In a large classroom equipped with a wind tunnel, 3-D printer and other tools, the students worked for 10 weeks to design and build aircrafts, a culmination of the skills they acquired as aerospace engineers over the last four years. The students coded small computers that enabled the planes to fly autonomously.
“It challenges students in a way that other courses don’t because anyone can jump on a laptop, punch in some equations and get some answers out, but this is the first course where you actually have to apply that,” Aryafar said.
Some students said they liked the class because they enjoyed trying to build something rather than just working in theory.
“This is the first class where we get to make something – like really make something, not just design it,” said Chester Le, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student.
Le and his nine other teammates built a lightweight plane with a relatively large wingspan of about four feet that would theoretically complete the course in 2.8 seconds. However, during the competition, they were unable to get it off the ground.
For the first few weeks of the course, Aryafar said he presented a series of lectures to teach the students about concepts that would go into designing the vehicles and ways to deal with interpersonal conflicts.
Aryafar said he uses examples from his previous years of being involved with the course as a teaching assistant and lecturer to help guide the students as they build the vehicles.
“At the end of the course, they get to test all of their assumptions in the vehicle they built because it has to actually complete the course and compete against other students. You can’t cheat your way through this,” he said.
Last year, teams had to create an aircraft to move an object from one building to another. The entire system was scaled down to fit in the classroom.
Aryafar said he recalls that one of the teams did not do all of the engineering calculations required while building their aircraft,
“It lifted up the payload and made negative progress. It was just obvious that it wasn’t working – there is no better sign than when your vehicle goes in the opposite direction,” Aryafar said.
Students spent a large part of the class testing their theories and improvising their theoretical designs.
“The thing with engineers is that everyone thinks that we know exactly what we’re doing but a lot of the times we don’t,” said Norris Tie, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student. “There are a lot of things when we just go like, ‘Oh this looks right!’ or ‘This feels okay.’ We just put it together.”
Angela Camacho, a fourth-year aerospace engineering student, said the laboratory class was her favorite course she has taken at UCLA because she saw the tangible results of the effort she and her group put into the project.
Camacho’s team was one of two with the fastest flight times to qualify for the final race on Friday.
In the faceoff, the two teams’ planes raced side by side to see whose plane flew the fastest and competed for an automatic A-plus in the class. Students jumped and cheered as Camacho and her team’s plane soared across the finish line in first place, marking the end of the course.