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NAU Student Engineers Soar with Boeing Drone Project

Aug 19, 2023

June 5, 2023 By FBN Leave a Comment

The team members made a visit to the Boeing facility in Mesa, where they presented their prototype to a panel of long-time Boeing engineers.

Fortunately, her Boeing contact was Senior Engineering Manager Amanda Nemec, an NAU mechanical engineering alumna, who now sits on the CEIAS advisory council.

After a discussion with Nemec, other Boeing staff and NAU faculty members, the project took off. Boeing had been developing a surveillance drone airframe, but the prototype weighed four pounds (just slightly less than a pet Chihuahua). The NAU student team was charged with designing and building a lighter, more maneuverable frame. It needed to be 3D printed and study enough to survive a crash from a height of 10 feet.

"For fun, we gave them a stretch goal of making it fly. Honestly, I didn't think in the short time they had that it would be possible to make it happen," said Nemec. Boeing also wanted the frame design to give enough space to mount pre-purchased parts including a flight controller, a camera, a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging sensing system that uses pulsed laser light to measure distances) and a gimbal.

The student members of the team were Colby Murphy, Jay Khunt, Dante Faria, Damien Brothers and Tommy Schreiber, supervised by Associate Professor David Willy and Assistant Professor Armin Eilaghi – both in NAU's Department of Mechanical Engineering. Nemec, along with Michael Vogelsang, a mechanical design and analysis engineer at Boeing, and several other specialists there, provided support to the team.

Nemec found working with the NAU engineering students to be a very positive experience. "The excitement that they brought to the project was inspiring. They worked incredibly hard to not just meet the requirements we gave them, but to beat them."

What the students came up with was a frame made of Onyx Polymer and ABS, a thermo-plastic that is typically paired with high-impact polystyrene. But in this case, the students used Onyx, a nylon material reinforced with micro-carbon fibers, making it much stronger, more wear-resistant and lighter. In fact, the team got the weight of the final drone frame down to 2.2 pounds (the equivalent of a small rabbit or a prairie dog).

"This frame isn't the type you can just buy off the shelf," said Vogelsang, "it's a really custom, specialized design."

The student team was able to bring knowledge gained from four years of study, from engineering drawing to fluid and solid mechanics, to design calculations and implementations. "It was a great experience for the students to work with an industrial partner," said Eilaghi.

The team members made a visit to the Boeing facility in Mesa, where they presented their prototype to a panel of long-time Boeing engineers. "The students really enjoyed their visit to Boeing," Eilaghi said, "having that level of conversation, interacting with really experienced Boeing engineers made the project extremely educational and interesting for the students."

In turn, Nemec said that the students "impressed our entire engineering leadership team with the design, execution and testing that they were able to accomplish in just a few short months."

Not only did the NAU team come up with a lighter frame, but they got the drone airborne, too. Nemec is delighted with the result. "She flies! Jacks always go the extra mile. I was so proud when I got to see it fly in person at the NAU Undergraduate Symposium."

Currently, when mounted with a 360-degree field-of-view camera underneath the drone frame, and a 180-degree LiDAR sensor atop it, along with a few other essential items, the whole drone weighs in at 5.9 pounds (about the weight of an adult armadillo). The Boeing teams hopes to get the airframe even lighter in future iterations.

Although this was the first year that Boeing has done something like this, it certainly won't be the last, according to Michael Vogelsang. "We will definitely do this kind of collaboration again and are already planning something with NAU for next year."

NAU's capstone projects have become an integral part of the university degree curriculum in recent years. They provide opportunities for students to conduct independent group research, develop practical skills and solve real world problems.

Some of the engineering students who graduated this semester already have received job offers in the aerospace industry. FBN

By Diane Hope, FBN

Courtesy Photo: Boeing's Michael Vogelsang and Amanda Nemec visit with the NAU student engineering team.

Filed Under: Local News Tagged With: Engineering, Informatics, NAU

The team members made a visit to the Boeing facility in Mesa, where they presented their prototype to a panel of long-time Boeing engineers. By Diane Hope, FBN Courtesy Photo: