The Science of Flight

Federal design competition delivers memorable lessons in communication and collaboration.

For two years, William Ziegler’s technical engineering writing classes have partnered with the Greater Binghamton Airport (GBA) and McFarland-Johnson, an engineering consulting firm headquartered in Binghamton, to compete in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Design Competition. After taking home two first-place awards in 2009, this year’s teams are intent on repeat success.

This year's FAA designs

Using Wind Energy to Power Runway Lights at Remote Airports

In locations without electricity, planes are unable to take off or land at night. But having a lighting system with a portable wind turbine — like the one designed by 2009 Senior Design undergraduates at the Watson School — at its hub would allow travel through 24 hours of darkness or a damaged electrical infrastructure.

Ziegler’s computer science students calculated energy production from the turbine, power drawn by the runway lights and battery life to design their system. And by replacing incandescent lights with LED lights, they use less electricity. “It’s not rocket science, but it’s a concept that people don’t think about,” Ziegler says.

Using Panorama Photography and Digital Imaging Technology to Locate Foreign Object Debris on Airport Runways

Tools, runway-light fragments, pieces of blacktop or sheet metal can end up on runways for one reason or another, and that can be deadly if an airplane strikes one of them during takeoff or landing.

This team of Watson School students developed a robotic camera system that takes consecutive images across a span of the runway to create an aerial map of the environment. Successive sweeps take less than one minute and compare a particular location to its prior appearance. Through pixel comparison, the technology will identify what debris is on the runway and its exact location, enabling removal before an accident occurs.

“I’ve always been a firm believer in experiential learning,” says Ziegler ’76, associate professor of computer science. “It’s a writing class, but the FAA Design Competition is the vehicle.”

Students work side by side with industry experts to develop their 70-page design proposals in just 14 weeks — an assignment that provides important lessons in management structure, team decision-making and problem-solving.

And four of the students, including two student leaders, are immersed completely in the project through internships at McFarland-Johnson. “The role of project leader has really opened my eyes to the degree of communication and organization  needed when working with such a large group of people,” says Ahna Shaffer ’10.  “And working with the professionals at McFarland-Johnson has  shown me what is expected when you enter the workforce.”

The airport-related design challenges draw undergraduates and graduates from about 50 colleges and universities nationwide. But with Carl Beardsley, GBA commissioner of aviation, and Chad Nixon, vice president at McFarland-Johnson, on board — along with several team members from each organization — the undergrads are poised to succeed once again. “It takes everybody,” Ziegler says. “If any of those pieces are gone, it doesn’t happen.” l

2009 FAA winning design takes off

While presenting their first-place proposal for geothermal radiant heating of the airfield apron (the area where passengers and cargo load) at a conference last year, Ziegler and his students were approached by an interested FAA executive. Since then, they’ve been working with McFarland-Johnson and the Greater Binghamton Airport to develop a plan to implement the system. “We’ll be the first airport anywhere to heat the apron geothermally,” Ziegler says. “We’re getting closer and closer to receiving the funding, and I’m optimistic that we’ll hear any day.”

The Grand Finale

Project focus turns to University need

After three years immersed in a rigorous curriculum, engineering students taste the freedom they crave in Senior Design when, in just two semesters, they apply technical knowledge to actual engineering problems.

Corporate partners have long been the cornerstone of these projects, but in recent years, teams have successfully initiated projects with community or civic outcomes and for national competitions. Mechanical engineering student Craig Broccoli and his team took yet a third route, developing a project that melds their interest in alternative energy with a University need.

The team, which includes four mechanical and two electrical engineering students, aims to recycle one of the University’s waste products — 300,000 gallons of waste vegetable oil generated annually by dining halls — into biodiesel that could be used to refuel the University’s diesel vehicles and equipment.

“They haven’t invented the process to create biodiesel,” notes their advisor, Joe De Angelo ’87, MS ’90, PhD ’01, an adjunct in the Watson School. “But they’re taking a new approach to improve the system and give it an application specific to Binghamton.”

Their system may look like other biodiesel systems — 55-gallon rubber drums, a pumping system and a filter system — but it’s semi-automated, requiring limited user input as compared to similar systems on the market. “We will have circuitry controlling various mechanisms to speed up the process and eliminate the need for a user’s attendance during the lengthy process,” Broccoli explains. Additionally, their system will incorporate various alternative energy devices such as a solar-powered pump and a solar-still chemical-recovery system.

With the help of the Department of Physical Facilities, the team’s project is literally coming together piece by piece. “One group gave the drums, another wood, another plumbing and another the metal,” Broccoli says.

Ultimately the team hopes the project will lead to a trailer-sized system and possibly a community hub where local restaurants can drop off their waste oil for recycling. But regardless, from research to design to construction, the project has been a realistic application of all of those classroom hours. l


Tim Sullivan, a senior in electrical engineering, uses a solar cell to charge a supercapacitor as part of his team’s senior design project. While similar to a battery in capacity, supercapacitors are smaller, lighter and charge much faster, making them an ideal prospect for solar energy storage.

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