Big Data Goes Back to School: Data Analysis Fuels Students’ Approach to Rocketry Competition
May 5, 2016
Big data isn’t just for big companies.
Five students participating in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), the world’s largest rocketry contest, are using exhaustive data collection and modeling to give their team the upper hand in this year’s competition.
Aiden Anderson, Nic O’Loughlin, Ryan Ritter, Trevor Dohlman and Lucas Kolo are the members of Team STARS (Science, Technology and Rocketry Students) of Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Their strategy hinges on one key asset: Data.
Aiden, Trevor, Lucas, Nic and Ryan collect data on each of their test launches – everything from flight angle and humidity to engine performance – but before launch, they tested indoors. With help from the University of Iowa the team tested their rocket in a wind tunnel. The experiment allowed the team to gather data on their rocket’s drag coefficient enabling them to better predict future launches.
(photo courtesy of the University of Iowa)
These rigorous simulations and data collection techniques prepared Team STARS to put their science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills to the test. Faced with designing, building and flying a rocket that carries two raw eggs to an altitude of 850 feet is a challenge in itself, but they also had to return the eggs to the ground, undamaged, while trying to meet a total flight time between 44-46 seconds. This is no easy task.
With nearly 5,000 participants on 789 other teams across the country, the competition to qualify as a top 100 team in the TARC National Finals is steep.
“We ran simulation after simulation, changing everything from wind speed, temperature and barometric pressure, to launch angle and weight,” said Lucas Kolo, a junior. “Coefficient of drag was the biggest unknown, and we had to collect all kinds of data to figure it out.”
For Aiden, Trevor, Lucas, Nic and Ryan their data-driven decisions would prove invaluable during their launches. According to TARC Platinum sponsor Thales, it is one thing to collect data, and another to use it to drive results.
“Simply knowing your data is not enough,” said Alan Pellegrini, CEO of Thales USA. “The real impact comes with using data that can speak directly to a problem and provide meaningful insights. That is exactly what this impressive team is doing.”
Similar to how Thales uses big data to solve its customers’ problems, these students are using data for better outcomes on the launch pad.
“Accumulating data is like building a puzzle,” said Ryan Ritter, a sophomore. “Every unit of information is like a piece to the puzzle, and the more you add, the clearer the picture gets. Our goal is to have as many pieces of the puzzle revealed before our launches at National Finals.”
Along with data from their wind tunnel tests, the team used rocket simulation software to calculate the type of motor needed to reach 850 feet.
“With all of this information and simulation data, we were able to select the perfect motor,” said Aiden Anderson, a senior. “Our first actual launch had an altitude of 871 feet and 59 seconds of flight duration.”
While some TARC teams conduct as many as 30 flights over the course of the season, the Cedar Falls team flew just four test flights before preparing for their qualification launches. During their qualifying flights, the team’s rocket performed nearly as expected, earning the team a spot at this year’s National Finals in one of the most competitive years of TARC’s 14-year history.
At finals, teams face the extra challenge of adjusting their rockets ‘on the fly’ to meet new parameters. This requires students to make educated guesses about how their rockets will perform under conditions at the launch site. This real-time, action-oriented scenario is no different from how companies, such as Thales, work to enable safer cities, smarter aircraft and more personalized travel experiences.
“Winning at National Finals requires the ability to predict your rocket’s performance,” said Trevor Dohlman, a junior. “The data we’ve collected will allow us to anticipate how our rocket will perform under various circumstances, and should give us an upper hand.”
Their extensive data collection and predictive modeling also meant lower costs and fewer recalculations. With every test flight comes the cost of another motor and the risk of losing the rocket.
“If we had lost the rocket, all the wind tunnel tests and coefficient of drag calculations would have had to have been redone,” said Nic O’Laughlin. “The modeling saved lots of time and tests because, in effect, we knew how the rocket would perform.”
For a team thinking big about STEM it is no surprise that Thales – the team’s sponsor – is paying close attention to how the team performs at the May 14 Nationals Finals near Washington, D.C.
“We love seeing young people engage in STEM, especially when they combine rocket science with predictive analysis and data,” said Pellegrini. “At Thales, it’s part of what we do every day.”