Jack Rutherford, an engineer for The Boeing Co., had an idea for an unmanned aerial vehicle that he wanted to build for himself and perhaps sell to the U.S. Army.
But to have a professional machine shop build the aircraft, he figured, could easily cost $100,000 — money he didn’t have for the personally financed project.
But Rutherford, who also teaches aircraft design at Arizona State University, knew about a program in the university’s department of mechanical and manufacturing engineering technology at ASU East in Mesa in which students build prototypes of products that entrepreneurs and businesses want to launch.
Previously the program has built such widely diverse products as an air-bag testing machine for TRW Automotive, a new type of putter for the ASU golf management program, a hydrogenpowered lawn mower and a type of bracket for Bones, a Tempe-based producer of custom gauge mounts that attach to motorcycles.
By having the ASU manufacturing engineering students build a prototype demonstrator of his unmanned aerial vehicle, and earn class credit for their efforts, Rutherford figured they could get the job done for about $4,000.
A team of eight undergraduate students has been working on the project for two semesters under the direction of assistant professor Alvin Post.
"It’s definitely a good deal, but there’s also a lot more risk," Rutherford said. "These are students who are learning."
It’s also one of the more complex projects attempted by the program. Rutherford’s idea, which he is pursuing privately and not for Boeing, is to develop a small craft with a six-foot wingspan that could be launched from an Apache attack helicopter and fly out ahead of the Boeingbuilt gunship to serve as its "eyes and ears" on scouting missions.
"This would be an extended pair of eyes for the Apache," he said.
He designed the vehicle to fly like a conventional fixed wing aircraft powered by a turbine engine.
To land, the wings are designed to rotate in the wind like helicopter blades, and the aircraft becomes an unpowered auto-gyro to land softly without the need for a runway.
The craft, which Rutherford calls an air-launched self-recovering autonomous vehicle, is smaller and less complicated than existing unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military. The patented design doesn’t need the drive train, transmission or antitorque system required in conventional helicopters, he said.
The students have made the parts for the prototype from fiberglass, Styrofoam and aluminum using computer-aided design techniques and machine tools donated to the ASU program by local industries.
They hope to have the demonstrator completed by the end of this semester. Then they will take it out for testing while tethering their machine to the back of a truck.
Will the prototype work as planned?
"We can’t guarantee a perfect outcome," said Scott Danielson, chairman of the department. "We like to think the quality is as good as a private company, but we can’t offer the same guarantees."
For Rutherford, it’s been an effort worth pursuing. "It’s been fun for me to do this, and the students have learned a lot. So it’s a great combination," he said.