Building the world’s largest foamboard aircraft
When you think of what you want a plane to be, the first words that come to mind are often safe, fast, strong and reliable. Usually, the words largest and lightweight aren’t high on the list. Foam and board almost certainly aren’t.
And yet, here within the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (MACE), there’s a project ongoing that’s looking to build the world’s largest foamboard plane.
The project academic lead is Professor Bill Crowther, an aerospace engineer who specialises in the applications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Beginning in 2019, the foamboard plane project has one aim: to build the largest possible model aircraft that can be made from foam board. Specifically, the plan must be within the UK Civil Aviation Authority ‘Open’ category, which limits maximum weight to 25kg.
“It started as a summer intern project where a number of students were tasked with exploring the creative possibilities of building aerospace structures from foam board,” Bill says.
“Little did we know that three years later we would build and fly the world’s largest foamboard plane.”
Why foam board?
To put your mind at ease, no one is suggesting foam board should be used for commercial transport aircraft. But why foam board for this project?
Bill explains: “Foam board is a relatively inexpensive composite craft material made of a polystyrene foam backed with paper. Parts are easy to cut by hand or in a laser cutter and lend themselves to fast assembly using hot glue. The material has excellent structural properties in that it is relatively strong and stiff for its weight.”
The other excellent property foam board has is you design with it in a very similar way that you would with advanced materials used in most other aircraft, like carbon fibre. Foam board is therefore an inexpensive way for engineers to test design principles that could be applied to real-life aircraft.
Will it fly?
A maiden test flight was booked for June 2022 at the Snowdonia Flight School as part of a second-year MACE Aerospace Field Course. The course saw over 100 second-year aerospace engineers take part in a series of practical workshops, equipping them with the knowledge to build and test rockets, drones, and fixed wing aircraft.
The star attraction, though, was the giant foamboard plane that had taken over half of the hangar.
“The greatest risk of this aircraft was that the structure was just strong enough to survive a flight. It was scary!” Bill adds.
“You put hundreds of hours into a project and you could destroy it in an instant!”
There on-hand to witness the flight was Daniel Koning, a master’s student who had spent some of his summers working on the foamboard plane. He, too, was nervous:
“When we had put it all together, we were thinking to ourselves ‘does it really look like something that will fly?’ and the answer was ‘no, it didn’t’. You have an airframe, but apart from that, everything is theoretical. It’s all just numbers and models until it actually flies.”
It was the moment of truth. Would it fly..?
^Professor Bill Crowther talks us through building the largest-ever foamboard aircraft.
The answer was a resounding yes! With a wingspan of seven metres and a weight of just 20kg, the giant foamboard plane was a success. It managed to remain airborne, and many years of hard work had paid off.
With the proven success of the foamboard prototype, Bill and the team are setting their sights on an improved model. This has birthed the Giant Foamboard Aircraft Project Society – a group of students and engineers who are coming together to build new iterations of the giant foamboard plane.
You can follow their progress on the Giant Foamboard Aircraft Project website.
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