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The University of Southampton

Birdman glides to success

Engineering and the Environment was asked to design and build two aircraft for Five TV’s The Gadget Show to fly in the International Worthing Birdman competition.

Jason Bradbury flying in the International Worthing Birdman competition
The Gadget Show entry

The team, led by Dr Alexander Forrester and Dr Kenji Takeda, and comprising PhD students and research fellows, had only one month to complete the project. Initial concepts were quickly refined into a detailed three-dimensional computational geometry (utilising the SolidWorks software employed throughout our undergraduate design courses), enabling a 1/5th scale model to be produced in less than 24 hours with rapid prototyped and laser-cut components.

The aerodynamic and aero-elastic behaviour of the model was evaluated in the University's RJ Mitchell wind tunnel and resulted in a slight resizing of the wing and repositioning of the rear spar. Computational fluid dynamics simulations of the 3D geometry on our 'Spitfire', Windows-based computational cluster were used to assess the effects of the wing tip devices seen on the final design.

The wing spars comprised lightweight carbon-fibre tubes, and our Research Institute for Industry was tasked with ensuring that these tubes would bend in flight for stability yet withstand the initial high loading immediately after launch. Computer-controlled hot wire cut ribs, reinforced with laser-cut plywood slotted onto the spars, were then covered with a polyester film. The whole aircraft weighed just 20kg and the structure performed precisely as predicted.

After practice flights in our flight simulator, the aircraft was flown by television presenter, children's author and trained pilot Jason Bradbury. His task was to take a short run-up, leap onto the aircraft in a prone position as he reached the end of the pier, and then operate a pitch control lever to pull out of the ensuing dive. In front of a 20,000 strong crowd, his second flight of 30.07m was the furthest in the Leonardo da Vinci class.

Dr Alexander Forrester commented: "Five TV has given us the opportunity to use our advanced computational and experimental engineering methods in an exciting and approachable context and we have found it extremely rewarding. This is just the sort of thing we should be doing to get young people involved in engineering."

Jason Bradbury said: "It was glorious: the machine did exactly what it was designed to do. It was seriously wonderful and I'll never forget it as long as I live."

Engineering and the Environment team: Dr Alexander Forrester, Dr Kenji Takeda, Jennifer Forrester, Dr David Toal, Andy Cook, Giles Endicott, Alex Purdue, Stephen Powell and Lindsay-Marie Armstrong

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