Innovative practice - Ready for take-off

27th April 2012 at 01:00
Building a fully rotational flight simulator

The background

A team of five high school pupils from California, US, have already gained an impressive track record in constructing unusual and ambitious engineering projects. The teenagers - John Boyer, Alex Jacobson, Joseph DeRose, Sam Frank and Sam DeRose - previously created a "potato Gatling gun", the machine-gun answer to the humble spud gun, and a modified version of the computer game Guitar Hero that blasts real balls of flame into the air as players use the plastic guitar control.

Their other inventions, created with support from their parents, have included an animatronic dragon. All the projects have been entered to an annual event held in Detroit, the Maker Faire, where adults and children from across the US display arts and engineering projects they have made themselves.

Three years ago, the boys visited Washington DC and went on some flight simulators at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. "The rides were awesome, but we thought we could build a better one," the boys write. "For the rest of the trip, we scribbled on napkins and dreamed up what we thought would be the most convincing simulator we had seen: one that could rotate 360 degrees continuously, on two axes."

The project

The boys had put the idea of the simulator behind them until last summer, when they were watching the science fiction series Battlestar Galactica together.

"We were re-inspired to build the flight simulator - this time based on the main 'jet fighter' from the show: the Viper," they write.

The students are now partway through the construction of the motion-controlled simulator. They have already built much of the cockpit using a fuselage cut from a Piper PA-28 aircraft in a scrap yard.

This will be strapped to a steel frame they have designed using Autodesk, a 3D design programme. The system for rotating the cockpit on both axes has been tested using small Lego models, while the video simulation that the passenger will be immersed in is being created using software including Final Cut Express, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop and GarageBand. The students have started to install a racing seat with a six-point harness and some of the cockpit's interior panels.

"This design allows for considerably more motion around the pitch axis than commercial entertainment systems," the team members write.

The teenagers have been collecting money for the project using the fundraising website Kickstarter.

Tips from the team

"Tinkering, hacking and making in general are great activities for kids," they say.

- Pupils should start with something small and explore how simple products work before becoming more ambitious: "Basically, get kids building stuff, or at least thinking about how real products work."

- Pupils should apply to events such as Maker Faires (for schools in the UK, one is now held annually in Newcastle).

Evidence that it works

The Viper is not yet finished. However, the team has already surpassed its fundraising expectations. The initial goal was to raise $2,500 (about #163;1,500) for the project, but the scheme has had so many donors on Kickstarter that it now looks set to raise at least $10,000. The team also has a track record of producing projects that have been successful at previous Detroit Maker Faires. Their potato Gatling gun was featured at the Gizmodo Gallery in New York.

The project

Started: October 2011

Team age range: 14-19 (plus some adult support)

Name: The Viper

Project website:

Inspirations: American TV series Battlestar Galactica; flight simulators at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

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