Special Issue: Peer Review: Project Teams Win First


Project teams, a mainstay of the School of Engineering, are student groups which design and build planes, underwater vehicles, cars, and so much more for use in annual national and international competitions. Through project teams, students obtain real-world experience, learn skills classrooms don’t teach, and create bonds of friendship alongside creating their project.

“You learn how to be an engineer by being an engineer,” said Kimberly Sheriff ’13, former team lead of Baja SAE.

Project teams are often interdisciplinary and incorporate several different aspects of the engineering school along with a business side that aids with recruitment and sponsorship. In return for the many hours they put in, students get course credit for being a part of a project team.

“It’s a great experience for getting a job, not only do companies know what we do, you also learn useful skills you don’t necessarily get in classes, said Alex Masetti ’14, outgoing team leader of Baja SAE.

Project teams are also involved with outreach projects including partnerships with local schools, boy and girl scout troops and the Sciencecenter, said Phillip Tischler ’14, outgoing team lead of CUAir.

This past summer, three teams won first place in their respective competitions.


The Cornell University Unmanned Air Systems Team, CUAir, builds an autonomous reconnaissance aircraft.

“Autonomous means that the plane more or less flies itself – the computer flies the plane versus someone with joysticks flying it around,” Joel Heck ’14, team leader, said.

For the summer Student Unmanned Air Systems competition in Maryland each year, according to Heck, the plane must fly around a grid on autopilot to various GPS coordinates. It does this by using data from sensors on the plane and a GPS. The plane must also use a camera to find and photograph targets on the ground during flight. From these photographs, the team must be able to identify the color of the target and the letters or numbers labeled on the target both manually and autonomously, using a computer program, Heck said.

According to Heck, CUAir is divided into five subteams. The airframe subteam creates the aircraft and its mechanical systems. The software subteam designs the software used by the plane’s ground station. The electrical subteam works on the plane’s power system and works with the software subteam to design a communications system. The autopilot subteam works on tuning and maintaining the autopilot system, especially during competition and test flights. Finally, the business subteam works on marketing, sponsorships, and promotion of the team.

The three-day competition, takes place at the Patuxent Naval Air Station and is sponsored by both the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, according to Tischler. Over 30 teams from India, Canada, Turkey and the U.S. competed in this year’s competition.

On the first day of competition, each team gives a presentation and performs a safety check with the competition’s sponsors and judges. On the other days, according to Heck, each team has a single chance to perform its flights.

“You only get once chance to really fly, and if something goes wrong, you’re done,” Heck said.

Although last year CUAir won first in the mission portion of the contest, this year they came in first place overall, Tischler said. Several modifications made in the past year led to the victory.

“In past years, we just bought a model that anybody could buy of the Internet and then modified it to our purposes,” Heck said. “This year, we made our own design so that we could make the design fit our project.”

The plane is completely custom built and was designed by several members of the team last year as a senior project. The plane is larger than it was in past years, Heck said, but it is sturdier because it is entirely made of foam and fiberglass and other composite materials. Composite materials are made of more than one original material but have different physical and chemical properties than any of the original materials.

Another new feature is a new antenna tracker, Heck said. In previous years, a member of the team would control the antenna at the ground station. This method was unreliable and was replaced this year by a new automated system, according to Heck.

CUAir tests its plane at the Ithaca Radio Control Society Field. Tests of all systems occur throughout the school year even before the competition plane is built in December and January.

For next year, according to Heck, CUAir plans to work to create an autonomous, rather than manual, takeoff and landing system.

CUAir recruits at the beginning of both fall and spring semester.

Courtesy of Rutna Gadh ’14