Welcome to John's Blog World...

Welcome to my little sharing space--where I come to showcase some of my custom projects and to share "how-to" info with others out there. As a lifelong "maker", design enthusiast, and design professor, this blog explains some of the little projects I occasionally throw myself into, with the intent that I may help inspire others toward self-actualization and to show them how easy it really is to construct and realize their own ideas and dreams. As Brancusi said, "Create like a god, work like a slave."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

If You Give a Designer a Helicopter Ride...

There is a popular children's book that I occasionally read to my kids entitled "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie..." in which a boy feeds a mouse a cookie, only to find out that the mouse keeps asking for more and more human-like privileges. People can be strangely similar to the mouse in this book, in that certain insights can help open their eyes to possibilities in the world around them. I have seen this many times as an educator; once students find out how easy something is to do, their inhibitions quickly melt away and they're able to feel more empowered to pursue their dreams. Several pivotal experiences from my own life have occurred this same way, as happened to me last month when my sweet wife secretly coordinated donations from several of my friends for me to take a "hands-on" helicopter flight to celebrate my 40th birthday (as seen here in this photo of me getting ready for the flight):

People who know me best know that I prefer hands-on experiences rather than simply floating around in the realm of theoretical and conceptual ideas (unlike many of the folks I often come across in American academia). On this helicopter flight (my first helicopter flight ever) the instructor let me actually take the controls, perform some basic maneuvers in the air, and practice hovering over the tarmac prior to the instructor-assisted landing. After having that quick glimpse into controlled flight, I had a greater and immediate appreciation for the skills acquired by pilots, and especially helicopter pilots! To say the least, the act of piloting a helicopter is one of the most multi-tasking--and exhilarating--vehicle control experiences I've ever experienced! And by doing it myself (with the appropriate instructor oversight, of course), I felt instantly driven to be able to do it again. But I also knew that it wouldn't suffice to simply fly in the sky myself. As a designer, I knew I'd HAVE to build my own aircraft someday, for sure. I'd tasted the cookie...now I wanted the milk to go with it.

Suddenly my mind was buzzing with possibilities that I never thought were likely to happen. I've always been interested in flight, and had even toyed with the idea of going into the Air Force when I was younger. But life situations and my own personal apprehensions (as irrational as they may have been) kept me from pursuing the possibility of flight. After this first flight, though, the door felt like it was wide open. And so was my sketchbook. I started using all the basic knowledge I had in my brain about rotor aircraft to inform some of my initial design ideations. Admittedly, it helped that I'd assisted some of my students last school year in designing some gyroplanes (or "autogyro" aircraft) through a sponsored project with the Spain-based Phenix Aviation...so I was relatively conversant about several of the benefits and constraints of rotor flight. I knew about the comparatively high degree of safety inherent in an aircraft that derives its lift through rotor autorotation (using a rotor that spins as it is propelled through the air rather than being powered itself--which is especially helpful to safely control the aircraft back to earth in the event of an engine failure), so I decided that a gyroplane was the direction I wanted to start exploring. I joined the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association), hoping to get more involved with other local aircraft builders and hobbyists, and then "went to town" sketching some concepts. (I'll probably get involved with the PRA, as well, here in the near future.) Below are some turbo-quick-n-dirty "napkin" sketches that I used to get some of my initial ideas out of my head as fast as possible: 

For aerodynamic efficiency and for a couple other practical design reasons (like weight distribution within the aircraft), I opted to design a two-person gyroplane with tandem seating, placing the passenger's seat directly under the lift point of the rotor. Additionally, I opted to have the propeller situated in the front ("tractor" style) verses the rear ("pusher" style) for better flight dynamics. However, in order to accomplish this with optimal placement of the aircraft powerplant, the prop would need to be belt-driven by a driveshaft that would run between the legs of the passenger and pilot--adding a little more weight and complexity to the aircraft, but also adding better overall flyability. (To counteract torque effects on the aircraft, I figure it may also be advantageous to configure the drivetrain so the driveshaft counter-rotates in relation to the prop--which will most likely require gearing between the shaft and the prop.) After about a month's time, I filled up over half of my current sketchbook, and needed to get another one. A very small sample of the design thinking that I went through is evident in this cute little collage of work from that sketchbook:

Next, to wrap my 3D mind around some of the forms and mechanical systems that I was contemplating for this gyroplane design, I filled an afternoon creating a few computer models in SolidWorks. (Note the low level of detail in these, as I was just modeling different configurations of the gyroplane to explore its potential layout rather than to perfect its design):

The latter of these three quick models (shown above) is the layout that I'm leaning towards since tail-dragging aircraft tend to land a little more easily on the ol' runway. But I'll keep working through the details. The next step is to create some scale models and do some wind-tunnel testing with our aviation department on campus--hopefully without all the aviation guys laughing at me for designing a gyroplane in the first place. (I've found that a lot of fixed-wing pilots have a slightly negative view of gyros, for one reason or another). At any rate, a remote control model would then be in order, followed by additional development steps toward a full-scale prototype. Since I'm approaching this as a long-term project, I haven't developed any time frame for completion. I still have to get a pilot's license, fer cryin' out loud! But my plan is there...cookie and all.