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From conception to realization: A case study of aircraft

design laboratory course

Amit Batra‡, Jai Mirpuri‡, Praveen Gill‡, Harimohan Navinkumar‡
Rajkumar Pant#

Senior Undergraduate students
Associate Professor

Aerospace Engineering Department,

Indian Institute of Technology Bombay,
Mumbai 400076, India.

Conceptual design contributes strongly towards development of engineering judgment, and
hence is considered to be an essential part of engineering education worldwide. This paper
brings out the importance of student design projects in teaching aircraft conceptual design to
university undergraduate students. The course contents of an existing aircraft design laboratory
course were revamped from theoretical/computational work to a more practical, hands-on
experience for the students. The students were divided into teams and were asked to design
remotely controlled model aircrafts to meet specific performance requirements, which were
evaluated against a figure of merit. The paper describes the various designs of the aircraft that
were considered, and brings out the lessons learnt and experience gained, both from students’
and instructor’s point of view.

As a part of the curriculum of the undergraduate program in aerospace engineering at IIT-
Bombay, an aircraft design laboratory course is conducted during the first semester the fourth
year. This is preceded by a theory course on Aircraft Design. For several years, the students
were being exposed to the aircraft design procedures by making them do hand-calculations in
aircraft conceptual design. They were also being encouraged to write computer codes, or use
commercially available software tools to carry out the design.

Of late, it was realized that the laboratory course was not very different from the theory course,
and there was little scope for the students to study innovative concepts and gain practical
exposure. The course curriculum was reformed to introduce an element of creativity and
competition while imparting practical, real-life experience on the intricacies of design activity.

Course organization
This course for the undergraduate students holds five academic credits for which three hours of
instructions are allotted in a week. For this activity the idea of team meetings and brainstorming
sessions was evolved instead of classroom sessions. Various specific tasks were identified and a
schedule was prepared for the whole semester in advance. In addition to this, lectures by
professional aeromodellers and other experienced people were planned.

The students were required to complete a group project involving the design of a remotely
controlled aircraft to meet a specified mission. The group project was aimed to achieve the
following learning goals for the students:

1. To provide ‘hands-on’ experience related to Aircraft Design

2. To be able to plan and execute a multi-disciplinary design task

3. To be able to successfully present the results of the design task verbally and in the form
of a report and drawings.
4. To learn to work efficiently in a group and as a member of the group

The specific tasks to be carried out by the students were:

1. Study of the various aircraft concepts that can carry out this mission
2. Carrying out initial sizing studies
3. Geometrical sizing of wing, fuselage, tails, payload bay
4. Deciding the aircraft layout and aerofoil cross-sections
5. Design of mechanism for payload release
6. Preparation of detailed drawings and instructions for the aero-modeler
7. Liaison with the aero-modeler during construction and flying
8. Preparation of a detailed design report

For this purpose, the class was divided into four groups each consisting of 5 or 6 students with
one member as the group leader. Within a group, individual students were assigned specific
responsibilities viz., literature survey and documentation, design or liaise with the aero modeler.

Initially, all the four groups were to work independently. After four weeks, all groups were to make
a presentation on their concept, and submit a report on their design. The best two out of the four
concepts were to be chosen for further study, and then two groups were to be merged. The two
groups were then required to prepare the detailed production drawings and plans, and submit
them for construction. They were then required to liaise with the model maker, incorporate any
changes/modifications and test fly the model, before its final evaluation.

The Schedule
The stage-wise breakdown of the task, along with the time allotted for each stage was as follows:


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Problem Formulation *
Literature Survey * *
Conceptual Design * * *
Selection of two concepts *
Prepare report and production
* *
Model fabrication * * *
Modifications * *
Flight Testing * * *
Evaluation * *

Criteria for evaluation of the students

The weightage for various tasks was assigned as under:

1. 20% for ingenuity of the concepts and the design philosophy employed
2. 15% for the report and presentation related to the conceptual design
3. 20% for clarity and detail of the drawings and construction instructions
4. 20% for the performance of the end-product vis-à-vis the mission requirements
5. 25% for the quality and technical detail in the final design report

Resources made available to students
1. Books related to model aircraft design and aerodynamics
2. Powerplant system with propeller and fuel tank
3. Professional help for construction of model as per drawings, and flight-testing.

The students were expected to carry out this task without seeking any direct help or guidance
from the faculty members, staff members, or other students of the institute. Each team was to
discuss their progress and problems faced by them during the weekly meetings.

Design objectives
The aircraft was to be designed around a given powerplant system i.e. engine, propeller and fuel
weight. The mission was identified as typical of a model power-assisted glider. The details of the
mission and the design objectives were laid down as follows:

Design an aircraft having minimum all-up weight and lowest overall cost, that remains airborne
with a specified payload till a given amount of fuel runs out, after which the payload is dropped,
and the aircraft is glided back safely to the starting point.

The payload was a wooden blackboard duster (weighing 0.157 kg), and the engine used was OS
MAX 15LA model engine, details of which are given in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Three-View Drawings of the OS MAX 15LA engine

The overall cost included the cost of basic material, equipments such as servo-controllers,
engine, propeller and the cost of construction of the model.

Release mechanism
An important part of the design was that of the payload release mechanism. Students were told to
device mechanism using which payload drop can be initiated at desirable time during the
aircraft’s mission.

Phases of the activity

Literature Survey
The students did not have any prior experience in aeromodelling; hence they started off by
browsing through a number of websites (e.g., [1], [2] and [3]) to get an overview of aeromodelling.
This provided them an insight to the different types of model aircraft such as glider, trainer,
aerobatic models, and the different materials and methods used for construction of radio-

controlled models. The design of a model aircraft requires knowledge about various issues like
weight estimation, selection of design parameters, wing design, airfoil selection and choice of
correct materials. Guidelines for design of such models were obtained from standard reference
books for design of radio controlled model aircraft, such as [4] and [5]. Next, the attention was
focused on obtaining details of specific designs of model gliders for similar mission requirements.
Literature related to new model aircraft designs such as Turning Point [6] and Ole Man Mose [7]
helped in drawing a few important conclusions about the design features. As mentioned above,
each group had to submit full-scale drawings of their designs with all the details like, the spar
location, number of ribs to be used, the payload drop mechanism, the location of the payload, and
the position of the servos. Hence, sample drawings of model gliders (e.g. [8]) were obtained and
studied in detail.

Some software packages available on the internet for performing certain analyses were identified
and downloaded. These are briefly described below:

• Profili 1.2 [9]: A software package containing over 18,000 airfoil sections with provision
for adding and modifying airfoils for different requirements.

• VisualFoil 4.0 [10]: A software to duplicate the function of a wind tunnel and generates
aerodynamic data.

• Airfoil Web [11]: Java applet for estimation of the lift and moment coefficients of an airfoil.
It also estimates the boundary layer properties and aids in calculating the friction drag of
the airfoil.

• XFOIL [12]: It is an interactive program for the design and analysis of subsonic isolated
airfoils. It consists of a collection of menu-driven routines, which perform specific

• Panknin Twist Formula Template [13]: The fundamental information required to design
and build high performance swept wing and tailless sailplane is available on this web site.

Conceptual design proposals of various groups

The first group proposed a hand launched flying wing configuration with skids instead of landing gears,
citing low weight and excellent glide characteristics as the deciding factor [14]. The payload was to be
carried under the fuselage and the proposed release mechanism is shown in Figure 2. The rudder and
aileron were coupled to reduce the cost of one servo-controller, and reduced all-up weight.

Figure 2: Top and side view of the flying wing configuration and its release mechanism

The group also developed a spreadsheet [Table-1] to evaluate the initial sizing of the model aircraft that
they were building. The spreadsheet made an estimate of the longitudinal stability margin of the aircraft
that can be compared to the required margin and each configuration can be evaluated.

Table 1:Spreadsheet of initial sizing
gms ounces Atmosphere SI
Weights 28 Density 1.225
Propulsion 125 4.46 Viscosity 1.85E-05
Battery 100 3.57 C/L
Servos (three) 105 3.75 Takeoff 1
Payload 160 5.71 Landing 0.8
Subtotal 490 17.50 Glide 0.43
Airframe 300 10.71 C_D0 0.01
0.43415435 cl @ max l/d
Grand Total 790 28.21 C_D = 0.0433
L/D max = 10.03
Landing Weight 630 22.50
Takeoff Weight 790 28.21
Climb Weight 790 28.21 W/S S-wing
Performance m/sec f/sec kmph mph Reynld no SI Ozs./ft.sq feet sq
0.3048 0.28 0.5 0.30
Landing Speed 10 32.81 36.00 20.00 1.36E+05 5.00 16.59 1.36
Glide Speed 12 39.37 43.20 24.00 1.59E+05 3.87 12.84 1.75
Wing geometry Structural weight of wing
Area 1.75 Sq. Ft. ozs./sq.ft. = 6.18
AR 6 Est weight = 10.82 ounces
Taper 0.6 303.09 gms
Sweep (1/4 crd. line) 15 deg 300 last guess
Dihedral 0 deg Sr.No C.G. Estimation
Feet Inches Part Weight Position X Position Y
Span 3.24 38.91 1 Engine 125 -1 0
C_root 0.68 8.11 2 Servo1 35 4 0
C_tip 0.41 4.86 3 Servo2 35 4 0
feet inches 4 Servo3 35 4 0
Aerodynamic Center 0.37 4.42 5 Battery 100 8 0
MAC- (y) for half wing 0.74 8.92 6 Circuitry 0 0 0
MAC 0.55 6.62 7 Wing 310 6 0
Neutral Point(x) 0.42 5.08 8 Fin1 15 10 0
9 Fin2 15 10 0
Stability Margin Desired 7.0 % 10 Skid 12 3 0
Stb. Mgn. with Payload 6.7 % 11 Ld Gear1 12 2 0
Stb. Mgn. w/o Payload 6.6 % 12 Ld Gear2 12 2 0
13 Skid1 12 2 0
14 Skid2 12 2 0
15 Payload 160 4.6 0
CG with Payload 4.63 0.00 inch
CG w/o Payload 4.64 0.00 inch
Desired C.G. Location 4.61

The second group proposed a pencil fuselage design with a podded gondola. The payload was to be housed in
the gondola, which was expendable. The use of aileron was discarded and all moving horizontal tail and rudder
were proposed as the two control surfaces. The possibility of an expendable landing gear was suggested. The
idea was to meet the mission optimally with minimum add-ons. Figure 3 shows the sketch of the proposed

Figure 3: Pencil fuselage with podded gondola

The remaining two groups came up with conventional designs for the model aircraft. One of the main
contributions from these designs was the suggested coupling of the release mechanism with the
elevator control to save the cost and weight of one servomotor. The other group suggested a simple pull
rod mechanism for payload release as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Simple pull rod mechanism to drop the payload.

At the end of these presentations the panel of judges suggested changes in each of the designs. The
flying wing concept had to be abandoned because of the lack of experience in building such models. As
such, the number of flying wing models built till date are very few. The pencil fuselage was not
recommended since it was felt that it could not withstand the weight and the vibrations of the engine.
Also the change in the center of gravity caused by dropping of the payload with the gondola could cause
the aircraft to go out of control. It was also decided that the models would be hand launched. This
removed the task of landing gear design from the process.

The four teams were then merged into two, the AIRBUS team and the BOEING team, and were
required to come up with modifications in the designs. The aim of this phase was for the students to
learn the limitations that come up when moving from design to the manufacture phase. Owing to the
insufficient experience and lack of design tools and experience, the general consensus was to go ahead
with two separate designs having rather conventional configuration and two servo-controllers for rudder
and elevator control. Also since it was a first attempt at building aero-models it was decided to stick to
proven configurations, since the thrust of the project was to get flying models and not to develop fancy
designs. Figure 5 shows the sketch of one of the conventional designs that was suggested.

Figure 5: Conventional design with a separate servo motor for release mechanism

Evolution of the detailed design

After the first evaluation, of the conceptual design, the two teams were asked to subject their designs to
detailed analysis, leading to the identification of the most critical design requirements. The students
carried out an in-depth study of the various plans and drawings of existing and well-proven model
aircraft, to get a first hand feel of the design process, and to obtain pointers to the specific design
features that would lead to a better design.

Next, they selected appropriate aerofoil sections for the wings and horizontal and vertical tails of their
aircraft, and attempted to carry out a preliminary estimation of the aerodynamic characteristics and
mass breakdown of the aircraft. The sizing and configuration layout of aircraft was then carried out using
the established design procedures for model aircraft from [4] & [5]. At each of the above stages, the
students had to apply the concepts that they were taught in the aircraft design course that they had
taken the previous semester. The AIRBUS team decided to go in for a simple wing having dihedral wing
from the root itself, whereas the BOEING team went for a polyhedral wing. The sample design
calculations of the AIRBUS group as follows.

Initial sizing or weight estimation forms the first step in aircraft design and it involved the following.
Engine Weight = 0.15 kg
Servos Weight = 0.105 kg (3 x 0.035)
Payload Weight = 0.157 kg
Battery pack Weight = 0.095 kg
Total Fixed Weight = 0.50 kg ~ 0.51 kg

From [4], total weight can be approximated as twice the fixed weight and hence

Total Aircraft Weight ~ 1.0 kg

The important design parameters for the given mission have the following range of values as given in

Aspect Ratio = 8 to 15.

Wing Loading = 20 to 40 N/m2
L/D = 10 to 16.
An iterative procedure was followed to obtain the values of the design and other geometric parameters.
The iteration starts by assuming initial values of Wing Loading and Aspect Ratio and subsequent
determination of lift coefficient (CL). This leads to the selection of airfoil and then to estimation of L/D.
One or both of the design parameters are altered until acceptable values of all the design parameters
are obtained. The values obtained after the final iteration were:

Initial values of
Weight = 1.0 kg
Wing Loading = 30 N/m2
Aspect Ratio = 10
Density of air = 1.225 kg/m3
Wing Area (S) = 0.33 m2
Span (b) = 1.8 m
Chord = 0.18 m

At Cruise Airspeed Vcr = 14 m/s (assumption based on experience)

CL= 2W/(ρVcr2S)= 0.25

At Landing Airspeed Vland = 8 m/s (assumption based on experience)

CL-land = 1.00

The airfoil section was selected based on the above values of CL required by the model. Since the
remote controlled models fly at very low speeds there was a need to select airfoils that have high lift
characteristics at low Reynolds numbers. The Selig 3021 flat bottom airfoil section was selected by the
AIRBUS group from the Profili software database and the download is available at [9]. The BOEING
group on the other hand chose the S1223 [15]. The horizontal tail area and vertical tail area were
calculated based on the thumb rules given in [4]. Important characteristics of the airfoil for low Reynolds
numbers (60,000 to 100,000) typical for R/C models have been studied from [5]

Horizontal Tail Area = 20 % of Wing Area = 0.064 m2

Vertical Tail Area = 6 % of Wing Area = 0.02 m2

The location of the Center of Gravity (CG) of the model has a direct influence on the longitudinal stability
of the model. The CG location was intended to give adequate stability margin and hence has been
placed at 15 % chord from the leading edge of the wing. The relative positioning of the engine and the
servos was determined by balancing them about the above said CG position. The payload was
positioned such that its CG was near the CG of the entire aircraft.

The calculations shown above resulted in a conventional type of aircraft designed by the AIRBUS group.
The BOEING group also went through a similar process in designing their aircraft. Figures 6 and 7
provide the details of the wing designed by BOEING group. Figures 8,9 and 10 provide the details of the
wing and empennage designed by the AIRBUS group.

Front view of
the polyhedral

Wire frame View

Rendered View

Figure 6: Wire frame and rendered view of the wing designed by the Boeing group

Figure 7: Front view and top view of the tapered, polyhedral wing designed by the Boeing group

Side View

Top View

Rudder Deflected
by 15 degrees

Figure 8: Empennage of the Airbus group design

Figure 9: Rendered and exploded view of the Airbus group wing

Figure 10: Construction details of the wing designed by the Airbus group

Design of the release mechanism

The students realized very quickly that a good and reliable release mechanism was essential for
successful completion of the mission; hence they decided to spend a considerable amount of their
energy and time in its design and testing. Several radical concepts were suggested, including the use of
control surface deflection beyond expected values during normal operation of the aircraft to trigger the
release sequence. Despite the fact that such a scheme ran the risk of inadvertent release of payload
during the flight, the BOEING team decided to go ahead with using the rudder control servo-motor for
payload release, since it lead to a narrower fuselage (hence lower drag), and a reduction in the cost and
weight of a servo-motor. The AIRBUS team decided not to take this risk, and went for the provision of a
separate servo-controller for its release mechanism.

Model fabrication, integration and initial trial runs

The students maintained a constant liaison with the model-maker during the entire fabrication process,
and some changes to the layout and dimensions were made to both the models after several rounds of
discussions, on the basis of the model-maker’s previous experience. The students learnt that they had
overlooked many fabrication related issues while carrying out their designs; for instance, the skin
thickness specified in the wing-tip region of the aircraft by both the teams were far below what was
possible to fabricate. Further, the trailing edge had to be fabricated with an insert instead of joining of
two thin sheets as was suggested in the drawings.

The initial shakedown flights were carried out in a progressive manner, first without the payload,
and then with the payload. The flight characteristics and handling of both the aircraft were found
to be satisfactory. However, the release mechanisms of both the aircraft showed some problems,
which were attended to and solved by the students in situ. Table 2 lists the main differences in
the two designs.

Table2: Features of the two designs

Dihedral wing Polyhedral wing
Rectangular wing Tapered wing
Strut type Horizontal and Vertical tail Solid plate type Horizontal and Vertical tail
Separate Servo-controller for payload drop Payload drop mechanism coupled with rudder

Final Evaluation of the project

On the day of the final testing and evaluation both the aircraft flew very well, and fulfilled the
mission requirements. The payload release mechanisms of both the aircraft worked properly in
the final evaluation flight. The flight characteristics and handling of the aircraft developed by the
AIRBUS Team were found to be much better, and in one flight, it remained airborne for more
than 8 minutes after encountered a favorable upwind! However, the aircraft developed by the
BOEING Team was declared the winner, as it could complete the mission with lower all-up
weight and with only two servomotors (compared to three in the other). After the completion of
the mission, the weights of the components of the two aircraft were obtained and are listed in
Table 3.
Table 3:Weight components of the two designs
(kg) (kg)
Fuselage 0.195 0.190
Wing 0.360 0.240
Servo controller 0.105 0.070
Power plant system 0.300 0.300
Total Empty weight 0.960 0.800

Lessons learnt from the experiments

Students realized the iterative nature of design process and also that it may not be possible to
take up unconventional configurations, unless the appropriate design database and analysis tools
and prototype are well developed and validated. However, the successful completion of the
mission by both the aircraft indicated that when established procedures are followed, the resulting
designs are likely to perform and handle well. The design of the payload release mechanism gave
the students an insight into the study of mission-critical parameters, and some room for trying out
their creative skills and ideas. Students also learnt that even while designing an outwardly
conventional aircraft, there is some room for trying out innovative concepts, if certain calculated
risks are taken. The successful coupling of the payload release mechanism with the rudder
control was one such lesson learnt.

Many suggestions for the improvement of the undergraduate study program emerged as part of
this course, for instance the inclusion of a chapter on low Reynolds number aerodynamics and
the need for a more practical exposure in the Flight Mechanics courses. The students also
suggested that this laboratory activity and the aircraft design course that preceded it should be
conducted a little earlier in their Undergraduate program. The experience of seeing a product
take shape from conception to reality within a time span of four months also provided them with
a lot of thrill and satisfaction.

This experiment provided a first hand exposure to the students to the dual processes in a design
exercise, the creative process in which various design concepts are considered, and the
analytical process in which the concept with best chance of success is selected and further

This experiment developed the vocational skills of the students and instilled in them an
awareness of the complex, multidisciplinary and integrated nature of aircraft design. It was
established that the best way of imparting design knowledge is for the students to learn design by
doing it themselves, in a structured manner. Further, the students were also made to undergo the
experience of working synergistically, by placing them in a project group with an individual
responsibility, but having to cater for the needs of the group and project as a whole. The need for
continuing changes in engineering teaching curriculum has long been felt, emphasizing the
inclusion of more intense design education to meet the requirements of industry. It can be
concluded that this experiment has been successful from an educational standpoint and would
serve as an effective model that could be adopted by other universities.


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