Electric paraglider Delta rises to Machine Impossible challenge

Students from the National University of Singapore have built the world’s lightest electric paraglider trike after being challenged by the National Geographic Channel.

The team of eight engineering students designed and built the trike, named Delta, after the TV producers challenged them to build a flying vehicle for their series Machine Impossible.

They were approached after the company had heard about the launch of Snowstorm, a personal flying machine developed by FrogWorks, which is a design and prototyping studio for green vehicles founded by and for NUS students on the Faculty of Engineering’s Design-Centric Programme (DCP).

“Each year we gather groups of students to tackle interesting engineering challenges to prove it is possible to go green on land, at sea or in the air,” explains associate professor Martin Henz, project supervisor and adviser at the DCP.

“It all started in 2013 when we successfully converted a motorcycle from petrol to electric propulsion. Since then, we’ve worked on several more projects: in 2014, we converted a yacht from petrol propulsion to a solar-powered electric yacht and in 2015 we built Snowstorm, a personal flying machine that takes off vertically.

“In 2016, we were invited to exhibit Snowstorm at the Founders Forum in London and were very privileged to have met and shown the machine to His Royal Highness Prince William there.”

After the producers approached the DCP to see if FrogWorks could build a ‘flying car’ for their show, the students began their research. They were told that the vehicle could take any shape or form as long as it was fun to fly and within budget. The concept they came up with was for an electric paraglider trike, which led to the development of the Delta.

“We knew we needed to build a flying machine so we looked into different designs such as hang gliders, paragliders and fixed-wing aircraft. We shortlisted the paraglider concept with a parachute as it allowed flexibility and greater maneuverability at low speeds and we decided on a trike concept with a tricycle configuration as it was simple and stable. Two motors were also used, as one would not be able to provide the required thrust, and it would become more unstable due to the torque effect,” explains Thong Wei Zhong, one of the team members and a recent NUS graduate.

During the design the team was also keeping focused on ways to make the vehicle as environmentally friendly as possible.

“Unlike other powered paragliders which are powered by combustion engines and conventional sources of fuel, the Delta uses lithium polymer batteries which produce zero carbon emissions creating a green source of transport as well,” Thong notes.

Once the conceptual framework had been completed the next step for the team was to produce 3D sketches using CAD software. From there, the components were broken down into individual beams, where the dimensions of holes and connections could be tested and refined. Once this was finalised, the students got down to fabricating the components through a mixture of laser cutting, sawing, milling and 3D printing before putting the trike together.

It was at this point the team began facing some of it biggest challenges as the first build was too heavy and unable to lift itself off the ground. And so the team went back to the drawing board, looking at ways to further reduce weight and generate more thrust.

“A fresh new design was used, with a greater emphasis on carbon-fibre parts to reduce weight, and more powerful motors were used with larger propellers. In addition, rivets were implemented in preference of screws, nuts and bolts to save weight. A very thin fishing net was used as the protective netting as well in place of the original thicker net,” Thong says.

The test flight of the new and improved Delta wasn’t entirely problem free, however. On the first day the Delta had a minor accident while still on the ground, leaving some of its parts damaged and out of shape. The team had to improvise and do repairs on the spot using replacement carbon-fibre parts and bending back the aluminium beams to their original shape. But two hours later the repairs were completed and the Delta made its first successful flight.

The Delta, in its current form, weighs only 49 kg and is capable of carrying one person of up to 75 kg in weight. It can fly up to a speed of 22 miles per hour under normal wind conditions, and on fully charged batteries it has a typical flight time of 10 minutes, which equates to a distance of 3.7 miles.

Its maiden flight took place back in March, with the team later filming its episode of Machine Impossible ready to be aired in Asia over the summer before hitting UK screens this month.

The students continue to fine-tune the Delta but are also looking forward to working on new sustainable vehicles. Let’s see what intriguing ideas they come up with next.

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