GW Team Celebrates First Flight at Design, Build, Fly Competition

Students spent months building and testing an unmanned aircraft designed to deliver vaccine syringes to areas in need.

May 3, 2022

Two students work on unmanned aircraft.

A team of GW students designed and built an unmanned aircraft for the 2022 Design, Build, Fly competition. (Photo courtesy of GW Design/Build/Fly)

By Kristen Mitchell

A team of George Washington University students competed for the first time in person at the 2022 Design, Build, Fly competition, sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The international competition is an opportunity for students to get practical experience in the field.

The aim for this year’s competition, held last month in Wichita, Kansas, was to design, build and test an unmanned aircraft to deliver components needed for vaccination—timely, as this was the first time the competition has been held in person since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Missions included aircraft deployment, staging of vaccination syringes and delivery of environmentally sensitive vaccine vial packages, according to the competition website. 

This year was also the first time the GW team has been able to fly an aircraft in the competition, passing all the necessary safety inspections. Unfortunately, blustery winds on competition day led to a crash, said senior Alexander Yan, project manager of GW Design/Build/Fly.

“It was heart wrenching, of course,” he said. “But the team was able to bounce back from that, it was our first time at competition, and we were still very happy with how our plane was built.”

The team finished 57th of 97th overall in the competition, Yan said. The team placed sixth at last year’s virtual competition.

The GW Design/Build/Fly team started several years ago as an engineering capstone project, and over time has evolved into a group of 20 active participants that include underclassmen and students outside of SEAS. A public health student was instrumental in putting together reports needed for the competition, resulting in a high report score, Yan said. 

The team spent months designing their plane and used computer modeling and simulations to test how it would fly. They conducted flight tests in Centreville, Virginia, and Boyds, Maryland, in the days leading up to their departure for the competition.

Peng Wei, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, serves as the team’s faculty adviser. In the classroom students learn the concepts that underlie why the wing of a plane generates lift and how proportion can generate thrust of power, he said. 

“This gives the students the opportunity to transfer their classroom learning to an actual product,” he said. 

Yan, a mechanical engineering major, said applying the skills he’s learned in the classroom and mentoring younger students are among his favorite aspects of participating in GW Design/Build/Fly. Seeing all the different pieces of the plan come together in a culmination of all the team’s hard work is gratifying, he said.

“The team learned a lot too just from going there. It's our first time being at a competition, and that sets us up really well for next year's team,” Yan said. “They’ll have a much better understanding of how the competition is set up and what the environment's like.”