Updated: May 29

Earlier this year from January 19-21, a Women in Engineering workshop (WiECan 2020) was held at the University of Canterbury involving 60 Year 12 female students across NZ. The goal of the workshop was to “inspire the next generation of female engineers”.

One of the events was a rocketry flight stabilisation workshop which was held on the second day. The workshop overview presented to the students was:

After Lift Off: Flight Stabilisation Techniques
The main goal of this workshop is to find the optimal set of rocket roll flight parameters for an 80 mm diameter, 1.6 m length, sounding rocket. These roll parameters will be tested on a rocket suspended by string in a vertical wind tunnel with 90 degree roll steps. The initial experiments will be in the lab and a small section of the rocket on a stepper motor will mimic the real dynamics of the sounding rocket. Students will work in pairs; the top three teams that provide the fastest and most stable 90 degree step will implement their parameters in a wind tunnel test.

The flight stabilisation techniques in this workshop are also applicable to orbital rockets. UC Rocketry’s flight stabilisation algorithms were the foundation for the guidance, navigation and control system on the Electron rocket. Prior to the workshop, a survey of the students was undertaken and only 3% of the female students were interested in aerospace. However, the interest dramatically improved to 33% after the workshop and was by far the biggest improvement over all the presented areas of engineering. The students were particularly amazed to find out the growing career opportunities of entering the space industry in NZ.

UC Rocketry lab in progress

There were three rocketry labs organised for this second day, 20 students each. At the start of the first lab I noticed some apprehension in the students as they’d never been exposed to flight avionics and control systems before. They were put in teams of 3-4 and it took about 15 minutes of explanations and guidance from the tutors to give them confidence to use the hardware. One of the WiECAN tutors then had an idea of writing the controller results on the white board so that the other teams can see what scores they need to beat. After this there was a surge of enthusiasm and intense competition to develop the fastest and most accurate controller and this continued for the remaining two rocketry labs.

Above is close-up of the test rig and a screen shot of the rocketry control GUI. The idea is to minimize the overshoot and the rise time. The software automatically computes the average values as well as the best values over each experiment. Some of the teams worked out that if they ran the lab for a long time then occasionally they get really low values that would give them a better chance of winning.

One feature of this lab the students really appreciated was that this was a full-scale avionics system that was close to the UC Rocketry hardware used in the research development of the Guidance, Navigation and Control system on Electron. The real-time interface on the screen in was a huge success as it gave a good visualisation of advanced electronics and control concepts, usually taught at the third or fourth year in UC Engineering. The system was also an example of a hardware-in-the-loop system that can test algorithms in a lab environment before implementation in a rocket launch.

About a dozen NASA badges were kindly donated by an Erskine visitor Tim Atkins, a Senior Avionics Engineer from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama. These NASA badges were given as prizes for the best controller and provided a big motivation. The students were also excited to try out their controllers in the vertical wind tunnel, which is the only rocketry facility of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

Figure 5: Implementing the top three team’s control gains in the vertical wind tunnel

The rocketry flight stabilisation lab was a tremendous success and has great potential for bringing more women into the aerospace field with a well proven pathway through the University of Canterbury Engineering programme. There was good feedback throughout the workshop from the students, especially during the more informal morning and afternoon tea breaks. In this rocketry lab, strong emphasis was given on the electronics and avionics since it was Guidance, Navigation and Control and the electric DC motor in the Rutherford engine, which were key enabling technologies in Rocket Lab’s success. Electronics is also where a lot of the new innovations of the space industry are heading, for example internet from space and electric propulsion.

The students fully understood that to get into this area requires doing the some of the hardest subjects at school including Physics and Mathematics with calculus and a few of the students said they were interested in learning about using Arduino to construct their own electronics projects. After the event, I had one student contact me directly to find out how to get into my UC Rocketry group. Her teacher also emailed and said “she seems to be quite excited about the RocketLab, which I must admit I had not even thought about but wow! What a future awaits if she can create the right pathway with her studies and experience now?”

Here are some observations from Emilie Feasey, a final year Electrical and Computer Engineering student, who was a residential assistant helping to look after the students during their stay at UC:
“The consensus from the students was that the rocketry workshop was one of the highlights of the WiECAN residential programme. I was impressed by the engagement of the students in the rocketry workshop. The real-time control interface allowed them to test out the theory as it was explained, and seeing the outcomes of the gains they chose gave a real sense of achievement. Many of the students had no idea that New Zealand had an aerospace sector to begin with, let alone of the pathways to get into the field. Reaching students at high school level is important as it is then that students begin to make the decisions that will shape their futures.

Dr. Hann and the UC Rocketry postgraduate research group have developed an excellent method with which to engender enthusiasm in aerospace engineering by teaching high school students advanced control concepts, and I look forward to seeing the outcome of a new cohort of female students with an enthusiasm for rocketry.

Article written by:
Dr Christopher Eric Hann, Associate Professor, Rutherford Discovery Fellow (Tier 2), 2012-2016
Director of Postgraduate Studies Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Canterbury