N.C. A&T Team Takes Second in National NASA Glenn Design Challenge

GREENSBORO, N.C. (June 5, 2018) - While working at his internship at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida last academic year, applied engineering technology student Dominique Breland hatched the idea to compete in a nationwide, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) competition with his friends.

He contacted three classmates at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and a friend at the University of Central Florida to participate. The team placed second in May in the NASA Glenn Research Center Higher Education University Student Design Challenge.

“Everyone brought something different to the project,” Breland said of his friends. “I just knew we were going to do it together and come out on top.”

To make up this dream team, of sorts, Breland called on Wesley Dennis at UCF, a senior, aerospace engineering student; Zach Peters, senior, pure math; Jesse Derouin, senior, applied engineering technology; and the lone woman on the team, Kara Bradley, senior applied engineering technology.

Breland said each person brought something important and different to the team, pointing out that Peters excels in math. “Jesse has experience in electrical systems. Kara was good at the general knowledge, and Wesley brought aerospace knowledge.”

The competition is broken into two categories – aeronautics and space. This team participated in the aeronautics category. According to a press release on NASA’s website, this is the second year for the design challenge and is part of Glenn’s search for top-talented undergraduate students with game-changing ideas as we advance NASA’s mission to deep space destinations, including Mars, and help make air travel faster, cleaner, safer and more efficient on Earth.

“Within NASA, we face challenges each and every day regarding our various missions, be it building a new supersonic experimental aircraft or returning to the Moon,” said Ruben Del Rosario, director of Aeronautics at Glenn, in a press release. “To address those challenges, we are always looking for new, creative ways to solve problems and move forward. This challenge is the perfect platform to engage undergraduates and give them the opportunity to share their ideas and develop team building skills.”

In fact, it was the ability to engage with NASA personnel that made participation in this challenge attractive to the team.

“I have always loved anything associated with NASA,” Derouin said. “When this opportunity came up, immediately, I wanted to do it.”

While exciting, this experience was slightly nerve-wracking for the group.

“They would talk about things, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was intimidating at first,” Bradley said. “But, it was rewarding, and it kind of puts us out there to let them know who we are and that we know about things like aerospace.”

The team’s task for the competition was to create a virtual city and flying car the support system and infrastructure. Throughout the project, the teams presented a total of three times and had access to various subject matter experts at NASA.

Teams were judged on their creativity and ingenuity, and the feasibility and practicality of their approach. Other factors considered included autonomous operation, power and propulsion, safety, noise reduction and traffic management.

 “A lot of the work was already done because (Dominique) started creating a city as a hobby,” Peters said. “We had to decide the kind of car we wanted to create.”

In all, the team created about 10 renditions of the car over seven months, utilizing artificial intelligence. The project was rewarding, yet challenging, Peters shared.

“We were trying to incorporate technology that either doesn’t exist or that can be enhanced to be used,” he said.

Derouin agreed and shared that meeting the energy needs for the sizes of the vehicles they created.

“With this project, I learned a lot about the development process,” Derouin said. “I think one of the things that helped us in this project is whenever we got feedback (from NASA experts), we took it very seriously, and we made changes.”

Those changes positioned the team for a second-place finish, earning them, and their fellow winners, the opportunity to visit Glenn’s Cleveland campus to tour its testing facilities. This team will travel in June.