Last Friday marked the second day of spring break for students in Frederick County Public Schools.
But you wouldn’t know it by the scene in the Career and Technology Center in Frederick, as four students in the Engineering Computer-Aided Design program and instructor Phil Arnold were hard at work to complete their entry in the national Real World Design Challenge.
The group, made up of seven students from various high schools in the county, won a state-level competition for their design of a drone created for search-and-rescue missions.
The sound of keyboards being feverishly tapped bounced around in the room as the students worked on the advanced computer systems needed to digitally create and test the remote-controlled, unmanned aircraft.
A pair of students sat together, poring over the dozens of calculations they had made to optimize their aircraft, checking their presentation for the requirements they would be tested against.
Another was making a wing-shape analysis using a different program.
And in one corner, a 3-D printer hummed along, slowly and methodically depositing plastic to create a scale model of the students’ aircraft that would become part of the presentation.
The students are designing a small unmanned aircraft system and a plan for outfitting the system with a remote camera to search for a lost and injured child at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
Arnold said the state-level competition had a search area that was all open space, although there were some false targets that could throw off the drones.
But for the national competition, the game has been changed slightly and now includes stands of trees in certain areas, requiring a tweaking of the drone design.
To help them design the drones, the students have access to about $1 million worth of aviation-related computer software on loan from the competition, Arnold said.
He said the competition is timely, given the trend in the aviation industry toward providing more drone aircraft, both for military and civilian uses such as the search-and-rescue mission the students are working on.
Arnold and his students are aware of the controversy swirling around surveillance drones and privacy concerns, but he said the unmanned aircraft are the future of aviation.
“It is timely and appropriate in terms of aviation,” he said. “... It gets students thinking about the ethics behind them, too.”
He beams when talking about his students and their impressive showing in the state competition and the extra hours they have put in. Last year’s team had to be kicked out of the lab at 2 a.m. during spring break, and he predicted it might happen again this year.
“It’s great to be tied to students who are so driven,” he said.
Their final design is due on Friday, and they will be in Washington, D.C., from April 19 to 22 alongside the winners from 41 states and territories to present their ideas.
This is the second year the school system’s team has won at the state level and moved on to the national competition.
Students Troy Grove and Garrett Radtke returned from last year’s championship team to join this year’s students, Jeet Kumar, Blair Plombon, Devin Shields, Jordan Smith and Tayler Evans.
Grove, a 17-year-old senior at Middletown High School, who’s enlisted in the Navy and will join the service after graduation, already stands with a military posture. He’s the team’s project manager, and one of two members who competed last year.
Grove handles the team’s mockups as he talks, describing the process that went into creating the drone, excitedly discussing the latenight conversations that led to its shape and other design features.
The team creates models of their design with a 3-D printer in the lab to help explain the function of the drones. The printers are able to convert computer models into plastic mockups of the team’s designs.
While the models don’t actually fly, they help the students explain the principles of their designs.
The school’s printer is capable of printing models of about 6 inches in size, so for the team’s largest model, which is about 2 feet long and 2 feet wide, they broke their design into pieces that the printer could handle and glued them together.
Grove said the design work the team is doing surprises parents and friends.
“We’re doing stuff normal people don’t do,” he said. “People are shocked at the stuff we’re doing in here.”
The students are designing the drone and testing it in their computers, including wind-flow analysis and stress on its wings and various parts. The winner’s drone will be built by the U.S. Department of Defense.
His teammates enjoy the creative process, too.
Jeet Kumar, a quiet 16-year-old junior at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School in Frederick, is a first-year competitor.
While hunched at a computer monitor, examining the team’s wing designs in a simulation program, Kumar said he enjoyed learning the computer program and the techniques involved in the design.
“[I enjoyed] learning everything,” he said. “The different calculations, making the drone.”
Tuscarora High School senior Jordan Smith, 17, and Middletown High School junior Tayler Evans, 17, are both first-year participants. Both brighten excitedly when explaining their project.
The two are working on editing and finalizing the document describing their design process and benefits, which will be evaluated by the judges.
Evans, whose father is a pilot, said she intends to be an engineer, and liked that the competition involved both aviation and engineering.
Smith said he enjoys the sense of teamwork and working together that the competition inspires, as well as the hands-on experience it provides.
“It’s experience in something other than math problems,” he joked. “And experience in something that can affect the real world.”