Eight engineering students from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have pushed their creativity to the limit, designing a super-light, personal aircraft.  ‘The Delta’, as it has been named, is the world’s lightest electric paraglider trike, weighing in at just 49 kilograms.

The design team took on the challenge as part of the National Geographic Channel’s new series, ‘Machine Impossible’.  Their task: to create a cheap, fun and functional flying machine.

The team custom built the main body of the trike using lightweight aluminium rods with carbon fibre joints.  Behind it trails a regular off-the-shelf paraglider to provide the lift.  When it comes to taking to the skies however, the two lithium-polymer batteries on board come into their own.  The batteries are connected up to motors which drive two 31-inch propellers, setting the trike off down the runway.

As the aircraft moves forwards, the paraglider at the back fills with air, ballooning behind the trike.  The lift provided by the trailing glider plucks the aircraft from the ground, and man and machine become airborne.

Even with fully charged batteries however, the flight does not last long.  With a maximum speed of 36 kilometres per hour, the pilot can average around 10 minutes of airtime before needing to make a hasty touchdown.

Challenging design

Building the world’s lightest aircraft on wheels (that can carry a fully-grown adult) proved to be no easy feat. Dr Rangarajan Jegadeesan, a lecturer at the Engineering Design & Innovation Centre at NUS said: “The challenge in designing and building The Delta was three-fold: we had to find the lightest airfoil possible, a wing, blade or sail crucial for flight, which we found in a conventional cloth paraglider; we had to find the lightest motors to provide enough thrust for The Delta to be airborne; and we had to build it so that it is light enough to fly yet sturdy enough to be safe.”

But build it they did. Over a period of three months from January this year, the team worked tirelessly to make The Delta a reality.  Chan Wei Tang, a third year engineering student, described designing and building the aircraft as an experience like no other.  As well as building the physical frame of the trike, the team also had to take into account the electric energy system, and the all-important pilot safety precautions.

Engineering creativity

Speaking of the finished project, associate professor and project supervisor Martin Henz said: “Designing and building The Delta allowed us to push the limit of our creativity and engineering know-how, while building upon our experience from previous successful projects. We will continue to fine-tune The Delta, and at the same time, we also look forward to creating more sustainable recreational vehicles, be it on land, at sea or in the air. Such projects have tremendous values in the education of our students in engineering.”

The Delta project was built by the team of students with the support of FrogWorks, a design and prototyping studio for green vehicles that has been founded by, and for, engineering students at NUS.  Previous successes to emerge from the hangars of FrogWorks have included Snowstorm, a personal flying machine with a royal seal of approval.

Photo credit: National University of Singapore.