UMD Team Lands First Place in VFS Competition

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Members of the Arion design team. From left: Ray Shimry Garatsa, Xavier Delgado, Noam Kaplan, Nathan O'Brien, and Nicholas Paternostro. Not pictured: Brendan Egan.

Graduate students from the University of Maryland’s Alfred Gessow Rotorcraft Center (AGRC) have won first place in the Vertical Flight Society’s (VFS) 40th Annual Student Design Competition.

Led by Nathan O’Brien, a UMD Clark Fellow, the team took the top spot in the graduate category with its design for a high-speed vertical takeoff and landing (HSVTOL) aircraft. The victory comes with a $2,500 stipend. O’Brien and fellow team members Xavier Delgado, Brendan Egan, Noam Kaplan, Ray Shimry Garatsa, and Nicholas Paternostro will be invited to present their design at the next VFS Annual Forum and Technology Display.

“It was a great learning experience and a team effort in every way. Everyone used their diverse skill sets to add unique innovations to the final design, and we couldn't have done this without support of the department as a whole,” O’Brien said. “I look forward to seeing what UMD can do next year!”

The team submitted designs for a 48,000 lb mixed power tiltrotor, named Arion, that is designed to optimize stability and control while delivering dramatic improvements in speed and efficiency. Named for a mythical horse that once belonged to the god Hercules, the Arion rotorcraft “embodies the immortal dream of VTOL: helicopter-like hover and jet-like cruise,” the team said.

Equipped with a custom-designed rotor system, a lightweight airframe, and advanced avionics, it takes advantage of the AGRC-developed X3D simulation tool, which allows engineers to design ultralight yet robust blades made of composite materials.

The craft’s versatility makes it ideal for battlefield scenarios in which warfighters or cargo must be quickly flown in and out of rugged, mountainous territory, the team said.

The students were mentored by AGRC faculty members Dr. Inderjit Chopra, Dr. Anubhav Datta, and Dr. V.T. Nagaraj. The AGRC is based at the UMD aerospace engineering department, which is part of the A. James Clark School of Engineering.

The VFS holds its Student Design Competition annually, challenging students to design a vertical lift aircraft in response to Requests for Proposals (RFP) prepared by major manufacturers such as Sikorsky, Bell. Boeing, Leonardo, and Airbus, as well as the U.S. Army. These organizations then evaluate the submissions received and select the winners. This year’s competition was sponsored by Sikorsky.

UMD has historically been a dominant force in the competition, winning first place 23 times out of 25 in the graduate category. Such success “challenges other institutions to measure up to our level,” AGRC director Chopra said, and it also ups the ante for successive UMD teams.

“We have to continue raising the bar to stay at the top given the stiff competition,” he said.

Published September 1, 2023