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High flying DMU students qualify for international aviation challenge


Engineering students from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) have secured a coveted spot in an international aviation challenge as well as a grant to develop their design.

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Connor Watkins (far left) with some of his DMU Flyers

Competing as members of the DMU Flyers society, they are one of just 34 student teams worldwide to qualify for the UAS Challenge 2022, hosted annually by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) to develop and inspire the next generation of professionals.

Teams are required to design and build an unmanned aerial system (UAS) with a maximum take-off mass of 10kg. The system needs to operate automatically and perform a series of tasks such as an area search, navigating waypoints, accurately dropping off an aid package and returning to base via a defined route.

Points are scored for the design and development – which has been ongoing since October 2021 – as well as for the flying demonstrations and business case presentations which take place at the British Model Flying Association in Buckminster this July.

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Leading the university’s team in the UAS Challenge is founder and chair of DMU Flyers, Connor Watkins. The final-year Aeronautical Engineering student said: “Taking part in the challenge is a really good opportunity for any student to get industry experience in anything from project management to design.

“There are lots of team and individual awards to be won, which show on your certificate, and it’s also a chance to learn from other fellow engineers, as team leaders from around the world have regular Discord chats.

“It’s not just being seen by IMechE that’s a big deal, but the whole host of sponsors too. Taking part gives students the chance to catch the attention of companies that are potential future employers.”

DMU Flyers winged their way to a £250 grant from Grass Roots, the engineering and technology youth empowerment team at leading electronic distributor RS Components, with a promising UAS concept which is inspired by modern blended body-wing designs such as the Northrop B-2 Spirit, Airbus ZEROe and NASA X-56.

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The team's UAS, designed by student Christian Bunalade

“It felt really good to receive the grant, as it means our design is showing promise and that people have high expectations of us. It’s come in very handy, allowing us to buy lots of personal protective equipment, as well as a new memory card for image processing,” said Connor.

“Our whole aircraft is designed to create as much lift as possible with the smallest wing span, incorporating modular and quick-assembly features. Our main designer is my coursemate Christian Bunalade who is focusing his entire final-year project on this. He’s an aeronautical genius.”

DMU Flyers are currently working on getting licensing for their pilots and exploring various flight-testing sites, ahead of July’s fly-off event.

Connor said: “I want to leave our mark in the sand in July. It’s a massive challenge to get an aircraft off the ground and I’ll be over the moon if we achieve that. Ultimately, we’re hoping to create the most sustainable and effective humanitarian tool, so it would be an additional bonus to score significantly well.”

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Due to his sports background, Connor originally planned on a degree in physical education, but when he didn’t get the A-level results he wanted, he realised his heart wasn’t in it and took a gap year to consider his options.

Inspired by his grandfather, who enjoyed a successful career as a pilot for British Airways and as a private pilot for high profile individuals, Connor decided to explore a future in aviation.

“I was really close to securing an RAF piloting role, but I failed the medical. What that process showed me though, was how much I enjoyed the research I put into my application, so I started thinking about doing a related degree,” he said.

“Finding DMU’s Aeronautical Engineering course was everything I was looking for, plus I was drawn in by the good graduate prospects too, as the industry is large and well-paying.

“When I started my degree I wanted to boost my own knowledge, as well as to leave a legacy behind. That’s why I set up DMU Flyers, which currently has around 30 members and is open to any student with an interest in aviation - and here we are now.”

Posted on Tuesday 3rd May 2022

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