Student team competes in CanSat Competition
A team of university undergrads – many of them AEM students – participated in the 2012 CanSat Competition, held in Abilene, Texas from June 8-10. This was the first year a University of Minnesota team has competed in the competition.
The goal of the CanSat Competition is to launch a carrier/lander system, referred to as the “cansat,” designed to safely carry an egg. The cansat also includes elements such as a flight computer, a GPS, and pressure and altitude sensors. Data from the cansat must be transmitted to, collected, and viewed by the team in real time and stored for later analysis.
The cansat is launched inside a high powered rocket supplied by competition officials and deployed at 610 meters. Upon release, the cansat should be designed to descend at a rate between 10-20 m/s. Once the cansat reaches 200 meters, it is supposed to reduce its descent rate to 4-6 m/s. At 91 meters, the lander should be released from the carrier, should maintain a descent rate less than 10 m/s, and should land without damaging the egg.
The competition has four separate scoring components: a preliminary design review, a critical design review, the actual flight operation, and a post flight review.
“It was very rigorous,” said Devin Vollmer, one of the members of the UMN team. “For our CDR [Critical Design Review], we ended up having 100-slide PowerPoint. The PDR [Preliminary Design Review] was only a little bit shorter than that.”
Preparation went fairly smoothly for the UMN team until they met a snag in testing the Wednesday before the competition. That evening, they found a short in the motherboard for their processing unit with no reasonable way to fix it before leaving the next morning. The team worked through the night to find an alternate way to power their cansat, eventually creating a battery that could be plugged into a USB port on the flight computer. This changed both the mechanical and electrical layouts of their cansat, so further modifications were still necessary. The team continued to make what adjustments they could while in the car on the way to Texas.
Despite the last-minute design modifications, the team passed the flight safety criteria on Friday, which meant they would be able to launch their cansat on Saturday. The launch wasn’t entirely seamless – their carrier/lander release mechanism didn’t work, and their descent profile didn’t meet all of the criteria (the rate remained at about 14 m/s the entire descent), but their egg survived the trip. They were also able to stream and gather all of the required data.
“As far as our score went throughout the semester, we actually improved from where we started after our preliminary design review to the actual flight,” Vollmer said.
Of the 26 teams (33 teams participated in the event, but several didn’t pass their safety review) that launched cansats, the UMN team placed 16th. They plan to participate in the competition again next year and further perfect their system and design.
“We were surprised when we went there, the teams that go down there take it very seriously,” Vollmer said. “It’s also an international competition. There were teams from Turkey, India, Canada – over half of the teams that launched were international teams.”
Sponsors of the competition included AIAA, NASA, the American Astronautical Society, the Naval Research Laboratory, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Praxis Inc., and Integral Systems. The UMN team also received support from the AEM and Electrical Engineering departments, ATK, Professor James Flaten, Professor Yohannes Ketema, and the IEEE student chapter as well as various university student groups.
“It’s a huge learning experience, going down there,” Vollmer said. “It was stressful and difficult, but everybody on the team did things that they probably did not know they could do.”