A creation by five University of Rhode Island engineering students may change the way general aircrafts operate in nearby airports.

Ronald Wheeler, Kyle DellaGrotta, David Powers, Lawrence Higgins and Christopher Clark, all part of the College of Engineering, were winners of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) annual design competition for developing, ‘The Wingman’, a device to prevent aircraft collision.

The group submitted its capstone project in April, marking the completion of its senior year. The four had been working on the project since Sept. of 2013 and were notified of their win this past June.

Creating a product that would prevent aircraft collisions cultivated from Wheeler’s serving in the Rhode Island Air National Guard for six years. Wheeler presented the widespread aviation collision problem to the other students in his group and quickly decided they would challenge this as their capstone.

“I quickly learned that wingtip collision avoidance is a very important topic, not only within the military but also in commercial and general aviation,” said Wheeler.

The students were from different disciplines within engineering (mechanical, industrial and systems engineering), which benefitted the students when tackling challenges in marketing, budgeting, design, testing and fabricating.

Similar to backup sensors in modern cars, the suction cupped device they developed scans surrounding areas for objects that could cause potential collision while the aircraft is being towed around an airport hangar or ramp area. LED lighting and audible tones alert the operator of the potential collisions, prompting the operator to bring the aircraft to a complete stop.

“We decided to use ultrasonic sensors because they are inexpensive and are able to detect objects within the desired range,” Wheeler said. Deciding on using the suction cups and the sensors came after extensive testing and engineering analyses to ensure reliability.

“There have been attempts to install permanent anti-collision devices in the wingtips of aircraft [in the past], but the extra weight from these permanently installed systems would drastically increase fuel consumption over the lifetime of the aircraft making it an extremely expensive investment,” said Wheeler. The Wingman is a temporarily mounted device making it a more affordable option.

Various schools participate yearly in this competition and Wheeler and the others won first place, beating schools from all over the country like the University of California at Berkeley, Purdue University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The team traveled to Washington, D.C. to the FAA Headquarters to present the product to airport officials and executives. They received $2,500 as part of the award to be split among each group member.

“This was an exciting opportunity to meet some of the people who make decisions that have a direct impact on the aviation industry,” Wheeler said. Last month, Wheeler and Higgins represented the team when invited to Portland, Oregon to the 2014 National Airports Conference and were able to network with professionals. They showcased The Wingman and Wheeler said professionals showed genuine interest in the design.

Wheeler said that wingtip collisions at airports happen often with larger incidents happening at commercial airports and in general aviation with little news coverage.

“Every wingtip collision results in aircraft downtime, costly repairs, higher insurance premiums and threatens individual safety,” said Wheeler. “The team’s main focus was to make airports safer while reducing overall costs.” The Wingman is designed to solve serious problems in an industry seeking cost-effective solution.

URI filed for a provisional patent application after the design was released to the FAA design competition. The team is continuing to network with professionals to further the development of their invention

Wheeler currently lives in Ohio as an engineer with a global manufacturing company.