The workshop where Washington State University engineering students and alumni are trying to make aircraft history looks more like a clubhouse than a laboratory.
Coffee cans line the shelves above a computer running a flight simulator. Discarded pizza boxes are all that remain of impromptu design sessions. In a loft a ladder’s climb above the shop’s floor, a cot is free for an overnight stay.
“There are days when we’re the last cars in the parking lot,” said Justin Bahrami, a WSU researcher and recent graduate who stuck around while job hunting to help the team. “We come back the next day, and we’re the first cars in.”
Among the clutter is a craft that is the fruit of those late nights. Disassembled on a table is the Genii, a 55-pound drone that could become the first student-built, liquid-hydrogen-powered aircraft in the country. What began as a giddy dream for the students and faculty adviser Jake Leachman a year ago is now turning heads at NASA, Boeing and research institutions worldwide.
“Really, it’s been students basically designing the entire thing,” Leachman said. “That’s the incredible part.”
The associate professor of mechanical engineering specializes in hydrogen’s use as a fuel for flight. He secured an initial grant for the project last June and has been working on the hydrogen storage tank that will eventually power the Genii.
On a shoestring budget of $25,000, the team has been able to assemble a craft that can, for the most part, fly itself, takeoffs and landings aside. Behind the controls for those crucial moments is graduate student Chris Chaney, whose grin grows wider when his partners refer to him as “the pilot.”
“The plane is just a very large RC plane,” Chaney said, adding that at a stall speed of just under 30 mph, it “flies beautifully,” if not a tad on the slow side.
But soon the Genii, whose name is an abbreviation of a Latin phrase meaning “the potential of hydrogen,” will test the lofty promise of its moniker and exit hobbyist haunts for restricted airspace. When the plane switches from battery power to hydrogen, a fuel source with an energy potential up to three times that of conventional fossil fuels, special flight rules come into play.
“We don’t want to scare a crop-duster if they look out the window and see us,” Leachman said.
Farmers could be among those lining up to employ the aircraft, should subsequent flights see success. The team has received offers from the Washington Department of Natural Resources to use the aircraft to fight forest fires, and water resource management teams could use the drone to house cameras watching areas of concern. A report issued in March found that the unmanned aircraft industry could annually add $1 billion to Washington state’s economy and create more than 5,000 jobs.
“The potential civilian market for these UAVs is way, way bigger than the entire military market,” Leachman said.
The team estimates the Genii could fly up to 16 hours straight with its current design. Changing that design could give the team a shot at the endurance record for an unmanned hydrogen craft set in March by a Navy-built drone that flew 48 hours.
The team has ambitious goals, but they’re quick to point out this is a side project for them.
“We all have our day jobs,” team member and student Alex Mattson said. “With people like the Navy, this is their day job.”
The task now is to repair a device that controls the speed of the craft – true to the team’s Spartan budget, a conductor that cost $1.04 – that became superheated during the Genii’s latest flight and caused a crash in a wheat field, which is a common setback in the flight process, Chaney said.
But for this group of dedicated students, those repairs will be more like play than work.
“If we weren’t here, we’d be doing similar stuff in our basements in our spare time,” Chaney said.
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