In the spring of 2005, Professor Ed Smith, director of the Vertical Lift Research Center at Penn State University, was looking for a team to work with his students in the annual competition held by the American Helicopter Society. The project was to design a high-performance, two-seat, trainer helicopter, and he wanted his students to get an experience akin to working in the aerospace industry. He had long been a colleague of Professor Omri Rand, dean of the faculty of aerodynamics and space at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and so decided to propose a collaboration. Rand enthusiastically agreed to the partnership, and an international team of students was born.
The two groups — six individuals at the Technion and five at Penn State — spent the first few months determining what the project required and setting up a schedule. "It's a very different experience for both sets of students, who are used to getting homework assignments and exams," said Smith.
The Technion youth were assigned to the helicopter's aerodynamics and worked out performance calculations, while the Penn State team developed a single-turbine engine and calculated the helicopter's ability to withstand a crash. They then joined forces to design the vehicle's internal structure.
Though the groups concentrated on different aspects of the project, the work was interconnected, said Smith. With a complicated project like a helicopter, the systems intertwine so that one effort invariably transforms other facets of the design as well.
It took a few months to get both sets of students on the same page, added Smith. While the Penn State students began their academic year in late August, the Technion students did not start until after the High Holidays at the end of September.
For the Penn Staters, the competition represented their Capstone project — the culmination of three years of coursework into "one cohesive vehicle design," explained Smith.
Penn State provided the Technion students with university computer accounts so team members could e-mail each another, leave messages and deposit files for the other team to critique.
One of the biggest barriers to the project was the time difference. The typical teleconference was held first thing in the morning for Penn State, which was late afternoon for the Technion.
Yet the lag was not always a hindrance. In each place, something was always being done. "Sometimes, it's even more convenient when you're working and the other side is sleeping," quipped Rand.
"It was really representative of what goes on in aerospace industry these days," said Smith. Companies break down projects, with a team in one country designing a specific component, while a team in another country focuses on some other aspect.
All the hard work paid off, and the Technion-PSU team took first place for their design.
As Smith and Rand await the next competition for their international partnership, they have high hopes for the graduating seniors as they head out into the aerospace industry.
With a nod to them all, Smith said: "They came up with, I'd say, a very professional product."