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As they sought inspiration for their winning entry in the 39th annual Vertical Flight Society (VFS) Student Design Competition, graduate students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in the U.S. took cues from eVTOL aircraft firms like Joby Aviation, Archer Aviation and Wisk Aero.
But those compact, verging-on-cramped electric aircraft concepts had to be modified to meet the requirements of persons with reduced mobility (PRM) — the target demographic for this year’s competition.
“The first thing we started with, to wrap our head around, was to think of it almost like an enlarged minivan,” said Richard Healy, a PhD student and captain of the RPI team that took first place in the Graduate category. “We thought the minivan idea was the smallest size we could think of that would still accommodate what they were asking for.”
After thousands of design iterations, RPI submitted the final concept for an aircraft called the “Oliwhoper,” a sleek lift-plus-cruise eVTOL with a spacious cabin outfitted with foldable seats, wheelchair storage, and audio and visual aids that guide passengers onboard.
“We latched on to the universal design approach — that if you design your vehicle for people with specific needs, those design implementations can improve [the experience for] all users,” Healy said. “We tried to incorporate that in as many places as we could, because who doesn’t want big windows, easy-to-use doors and lots of handles? Those kinds of design implementations help everyone.”
The VFS Student Design Competition has been a mainstay in the vertical lift community for nearly 40 years, and has helped launch the careers of countless engineers who now hold key positions in the industry.
A key example is the winning team from the 2000 competition that designed helicopters for use on Mars. One of those winning contestants, Anubhav Datta from the University of Maryland, helped develop the uncrewed Mars Helicopter that touched down on the Red Planet in 2021.
“These are the leaders of the future vertical lift industry,” said Mike Hirschberg, executive director of VFS. “We hope this experience will change them and, through the visibility of this competition, also change people who are in the eVTOL industry today.”
A key goal of this year’s competition was to nudge the industry toward more inclusive design.
To date, eVTOL concepts have focused on feasibility, safety, airworthiness and efficiency. But as developers clear those hurdles, the goal is to ensure electric aircraft can transport anyone and everyone, including PRM.
“We need to make sure these second generation aircraft are designed to have the potential for transporting everyday people,” Hirschberg said. “And everyday people have a broad spectrum of mobility capability.”
Bell was this year’s sponsor, contributing a total of $12,500 in prize money. When drafting the requirements of this year’s VFS competition, Bell collaborated with Aerobility, a charity in the U.K. that improves access to flight for people with mobility concerns.
Students were tasked with designing an eVTOL cockpit, cabin and baggage compartment to accommodate a single pilot and at least two passengers with disabilities — as well as alternative seating for four passengers with full mobility.
“As the configurations mature and aircraft improve, you can have them more widely accommodating,” Hirschberg said.
And while accessible, inclusive designs require a buy-in from the industry, Hirschberg didn’t rule out the possibility of new regulatory guidance.
“I think eventually that could be a possibility,” he said. “But it should be hand-in-hand with other aircraft — eVTOLs shouldn’t be singled out.”
This year marked the first time since 2005 that RPI has achieved first place in the competition, thanks to the efforts of a seven-member team that worked on the project five days a week for about five months.
A team from the University of Maryland won the Undergraduate category with an aircraft concept called “Blitzen.”
This design uses a single main rotor spinning above a fixed-wing, with a swivelling rotor-propeller that provides anti-torque in hover and forward thrust in cruise.
The Blitzen cabin is wheelchair-accessible, has storage for medical devices, an audio and text-to-speech communication system, and a widescreen glass cockpit designed to reduce pilot workload.
This year’s award for Best New Entrant went to a multi-school team from Turkey made up of Erciyes University, Eskisehir Osmangazi University, Necmettin Erbakan University and Samsun University.
“Our mission as a non-profit educational institute is to train the next generation,” Hirschberg said. “We need to train more students to handle a wider variety of aircraft types so that they can solve problems. Trying to get students to think creatively, nurture their innovation, and make them able to handle anything in the future is really important.”
As the student design competition enters its 40th year in 2023, students will be asked to create high-speed VTOL (HSVTOL) designs to meet U.S. military requirements.
Sikorsky is sponsoring next year’s competition, part of a sponsorship rotation that also includes Airbus, Bell, Boeing, Leonardo and the U.S. Army Research Lab.
“We always look for something that’s going to be at the edge of the experience of what people can do,” Hirschberg said.
If nothing else, the student design competition continues to inspire young engineers at an exciting time for the industry.
“The advent of eVTOLs has made it the Wild West,” Healy said. “You’re getting all these different novel configurations, all these different new technologies with revolutionary capabilities, and that really excites me.
He said the pace of development has significantly accelerated in this field, and there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“We haven’t cracked the code in the same way that you know exactly how a fixed-wing airliner is going to perform,” Healy said. “We’re still understanding these new problems and figuring out new solutions that take advantage of these new technologies.”