A group of engineering students are tapping into their technological expertise to try and make history.
The goal? It is to best the world record for the longest flight by an electric powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The current record is one month. They hope to achieve that goal in a few years with the use of multiple sources of power, including a graphene supercapacitor — a more lightweight and more energy dense alternative to a lithium battery — that the students are manufacturing.
Seniors Alden Caterio, an electrical engineering student, and Jonathan Franco, who is studying aerospace engineering, recently finished third and won $250 for the project at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 6th Annual Conference on Technologies for Sustainability (SusTech).
Cal Poly Pomona’s students were one of 16 teams selected for the competition from around the world, competing against students in master’s degree and doctoral programs.
“Industry people are very interested in the project,” said Jenny Yu, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We are multidisciplinary, so it encourages students to learn more. Nowadays more than 50 percent of aerospace projects also involve computer and electrical engineering.”
The project, which is a collaborative effort between the aerospace, chemical and materials, electrical and computer, and mechanical engineering departments, is overseen by Yu and fellow professors Steve Dobbs, Laila Jallo and Kevin Anderson.
Aerospace Professor Steven Dobbs began working on the project with students in 2013, and the team has been building every year, he said.
The idea is to tap into three energy related technologies to help the UAV fly — a power generation device that uses sunlight, one that harnesses energy from the vibration of the wing, and power storage using the supercapacitors, he said. The long-term goal is to integrate these technologies into a 3-D additive printed composite structure UAV wing to save weight and cost.
On a recent afternoon, four teams clustered around different work stations.
One team worked on the design and testing of the aircraft power generation system. Another group focused on developing 3D printing and testing methods for the UAV wing. A third team zeroed in on improving the 3D-printed supercapacitors, which are made of graphene – a sheet-like material made of carbon atoms arranged in a chicken wire-like lattice.
“Graphene is one of the most promising nanomaterials under intensive study for flexible energy storage devices such as batteries and supercapacitors due to its outstanding properties – including a large theoretic specific surface area, extraordinary conductivity, great flexibility and transparency,” Yu said.
“These properties make graphene well suited for electric powered UAVS with the advantage of reducing weight and volume of the device.”
The robotics team worked on a potential process for mass manufacturing the supercapacitors.
Serena Castillo, a senior studying computer engineering, serves as the robotics team leader. It takes time to make the supercapacitors by hand, so the aim in using robotic technology to provide a cleaner and faster process, Castillo said.
“It’s very exciting,” she said of the project. “It makes me feel like I am achieving something important. Working on a team like this has been great.”
Ben Flint, a senior aerospace engineering student and one of the overall team leaders, said the exposure he and the others are getting is invaluable.
“It provides a lot of experience with currently used technology,” he said, adding that carbon fiber, 3-D printed super capacitors are all used by aerospace giants such as Boeing and SpaceX.
Bowen Zhu, a graduate student studying electrical engineering, leads the team that designed the supercapacitor.
“Automotive companies like Tesla need someone who has knowledge of power management and new technology for batteries,” he said. Zhu hopes his experience on the project will be attractive to potential employer in the automotive industry who is looking for an entry level engineer with hands on experience.
The project sponsors include the iLab’s NASA Startup Program, Creative Aero Engineering Solutions, Southern California Edison, the Joe and Grace Yee Endowment, and ROBOTIS Inc.
Brandon Antillon, a technical specialist and sales engineer for ROBOTIS, said his company is providing the teams with Dynamixel actuator kits to help automate the process of mass manufacturing the super-capacitor and to make it smoother. The actuators can be used to help the robotic arm rotate better, Antillon said, adding that the smart variety can also better control speed, force and direction.
Antillon said Robotis has worked with Cal Poly Pomona for years and was happy to get involved with this project.
“We’ve always held Cal Poly Pomona students in high esteem,” he said. “What we appreciate is that they are not just theoretical. They connect the dots of practical application. It’s engineering but there is also a business side and being able to balance the wants and needs of the project is one of the qualities we appreciate.”