UAH – News


Luke Dynes and Chris Sallis, RSESC interns at Sparkman High School, with an airplane they produced.

Michael Mercier | UAH

A computer numerical control (CNC) hot-wire foam cutting machine to rapidly manufacture a prototype fixed-wing aircraft from rigid closed-cell foam has been developed by a team at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) Rotorcraft Systems Engineering and Simulation Center (RSESC) which includes an engineering intern from the local high school.

The RSESC team received a Phase 1 entry and $10,000 to demonstrate a proof of concept for the proposed solution over a three-week period in the FirePoint C3 Challenge competition, sponsored by Wichita’s FirePoint Innovations Center State University.

The team consists of Chris Sallis, an undeclared graduate student who plans to pursue a master’s degree in aerospace or electrical engineering and is the RSESC research engineer who oversees the high school student internship program; Nick Balch, UAH undergraduate and RSESC research assistant; and Luke Dynes, intern at Sparkman High School RSESC.

“We love engaging our high school students in projects that introduce them to a wide range of engineering disciplines to give them the opportunity to learn more about areas that interest them,” says Sallis.

“For a project last fall, we decided to build a four-axis hot-wire CNC machine for rapid prototyping of foam aircraft parts that would support research activities related to unmanned aircraft systems at RSESC. as well as Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering 490/491 Aircraft Design Course.”

The team learned about the FirePoint C3 challenge as they worked on cutting machine features and explored workflows to speed up the design and integration process.

“As we neared completion of the CNC, we were confident that we would be able to support a proof-of-concept effort within the Phase 1 competition timeframe,” Sallis said. “We submitted a proposal on how this manufacturing method, combined with additive manufacturing, could be used to produce small fixed-wing aircraft on demand.”

On-site hot-wire CNC production of aircraft from rigid foam could be a logistical and tactical advantage for the military.

“This type of machine, combined with a 3D printer and inventory of modular aircraft avionics, enables rapid, low-cost manufacturing of mission-specific aircraft in remote locations,” Sallis said. “Alternatively, this could be used to manufacture spare parts for existing aircraft already in service.”

A computer model of the aircraft part is translated into toolpaths used by the CNC machine software to perform the hot wire cutting. The resulting small number of aircraft components are held together with polyurethane-based glues. The prototype hot-wire CNC machine was jointly funded by RSESC and Dr. Landrum and is in final development.

The project was one of many that high school interns worked on at RSESC to provide them with the opportunity to gain engineering experience on a variety of unmanned aircraft related projects. The internship program for four-year-olds started in 2017 for summers only. It was offered every semester in 2019 and involved interns from Bob Jones and Sparkman High Schools as well as UAH undergraduates. So far, three high school students have been interned.

“Last year, we learned that many area high schools have engineering academies that allow students to earn course credit while working in co-op positions with local businesses,” says Sallis.

Dynes was the first UAH co-op student last fall.

“We will try to expand some of these opportunities over the next several semesters,” says Sallis. “We are now actively seeking projects for high school interns to work each semester under the Unmanned Aircraft Systems umbrella.”


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