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Student Spotlight
Industrial Automation with a Mission
A student design team developed a PLC-based control system to safely automate a test stand and prove out an engine prior to rocket launch.
By Simon Bambey and Griffin Peirce, UBC Rocket Student Team
At the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada, a group of determined students faced a technical task more challeng-
ing and with greater real-world implications than pre- sented by typical homework or exams. They needed to safely test-fire an actual rocket engine to verify cor- rect operation prior to launch.
The UBC Rocket student team consists of over 100 students working on multiple rocket projects. About one third of this group are engaged in the UBC Rocket Spaceshot project, working to build a sizable 25-foot-tall rocket powered by a liquid pro- pellant engine. The rocket alone would weigh about 450 pounds empty and 1800 pounds when loaded with propellants. As part of designing and building the rocket, the project required in-house creation of a custom propulsion system, the most complex part of the rocket.
About a dozen students focused entirely on designing and manufacturing evolving generations of the rocket engine, machined and assembled out of steel and aluminum parts. Once each propulsion system was developed, the team needed to test the engine control, functionality, and performance on the ground so they could verify the overall rocket design before flight. This meant developing and qualifying some form of test stand and associated automation to control and monitor test runs.
After some initial research, the team realized
that controlling and monitoring a rocket engine on the ground was much like operating an industrial machine. This led them to conclude that a program- mable logic controller (PLC) platform would be ideal for the task. This article shows how they created a PLC-controlled rocket engine test stand, improving and adapting it as requirements evolved.
On the Job Learning
The student team is made up of dedicated and motivated individuals who embrace the challenge even though it is over and above their normal school and work commitments. For many, it is one of the few opportunities for Canadian citizens to engage in this type of aerospace and rocketry program.
The UBC Aerospace and Engineering Experience
Actually launching the rocket is the ultimate goal for the team, but like any large project, this one is organized from smaller projects. The rocket engine test stand is one essential piece of the larger rock- etry project, with every element of the program criti- cal to overall success. Much of the math and science behind rocketry is covered in the classroom, but for real-world implementation the students would need to learn a lot on the job.
A few team members were assigned to find out the requirements for controlling the rocket engine, and to then specify and design control hardware and software to create the necessary test stand system.
It Is Rocket Science
For the team’s rocket, the engine size was speci- fied early in the design. The liquid propellant engine combines liquid oxygen with kerosene and a source of ignition, with the resulting combustion developing about 3400 pounds of nominal thrust. At full power,
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Cover Story
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User Solutions
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Student Spotlight
Industrial Automation with a Mission
Break Room
Brain Teasers
Student Spotlight | Issue 43
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