Red Bull Flugtag Challenge

May 2, 2013
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Student Reflection - May 1, 2013

When you ask a group of students to design a device to achieve maximum range, in a college that focuses on aerospace engineering and aviation, you are bound to get a fleet of fixed-wing gliders. So, naturally, we designed a zip-line.

As my teammates and I waited for the competition guidelines to be unveiled, the anticipation for the event was high. This was to be the last innovation challenge of the semester, and the stakes had never been higher. Not only was the event highly-publicized, with sponsors from Red Bull present and free food and drinks, but the winner of the competition would also travel to Chicago to represent SLU and Parks College in the famous Red Bull Flugtag event. Needless to say, I wanted to win. I came into the event fully prepared to draw upon my aerospace engineering background to meet whatever challenge was thrown my way. However, little did I know that stretching beyond my conventional aerospace background would be key to placing third in the competition.

When the hosts announced that our team was going to design a device to launch off the rotunda balcony for maximum distance, my thoughts immediately went to my introduction to aeronautics and astronautics course, where I had been required to design a glider that would maximize range. Then the grading criteria were announced: distance, creativity, and showmanship. Still stuck in my initial flashback to my introductory course in engineering, I brainstormed ways that I could make a “creative” glider and develop some sort of flashy skit to generate hype for the launch. After a few moments, I realized that I was thinking about it all wrong.

While the obvious response to the challenge would be a fixed-wing glider, the problem with that design was that it was, simply, too obvious—the design would not stick out among the many other glider designs that were bound to emerge. This would be problematic in achieving the other equally- weighted aspects of our final score, creativity and showmanship. Realizing that the groups around me, consisting largely of engineering students, likely would elect to tailor a design toward the more performance-driven category of distance, I proposed the idea of focusing on the remaining two categories which were inherently more subjective. With a design that deviated from the norm, focused primarily on creativity and showmanship, our likelihood of winning the competition would become much greater.

After a quick assessment of the building materials available to us, specifically wire, straws, bandanas, tape, and Red Bull, we came up with the idea of a creating a zip-line device. Acknowledging the fact that the zip-line concept would not be capable of the extended range achievable with a glider, our group determined that an acceptable distance would still be attainable with minimal effort spent, thereby allowing us to focus our time on tailoring the design to excel in the creativity and showmanship requirements. Gradually, the proposed zip-line concept adopted a Red Bull rodeo theme.

Our design consisted of a straw cowboy that would ride a Red Bull “rocket” down a straw-and- wire zip-line. All of the members of our group constructed matching cardboard cowboy hats and bandanas, including miniature versions for our straw-made western rider. We secured a straw tube on top of a full Red Bull can with duct tape, so that there would be sufficient weight to encourage the rider down the zip-line, and then we wrapped the shell of an empty Red Bull can around the structure to preserve the original aesthetics. Next, a “brown leather” saddle was created using a paper bag, in an effort to prevent chaffing of the cowboy and provide for a more enjoyable riding experience. With putty, we gave the man a pair of boots, complete with spurs, and secured him to his aluminum bronco with masking tape. After bending our straw friend’s limbs into a more realistic rodeo pose, we hot-glued his miniature cardboard hat to his plastic arm, so that he would not lose it during the decent. As a final touch, a stretched wad of cotton was hot-glued to the rear of the Red Bull can to simulate exhaust gases.

With the manufacturing process out of the way, we elected to test the design with a small section of wire to make sure that our rider actually would make it to the bottom of the balcony in one piece. However, we quickly discovered the wire would cut through exposed pieces of straw as gravity carried the weight to the ground. With this in mind, the exposed pieces of the straw attachment were removed so that only the section that was reinforced with duct tape would interact with the wire. After a few tests, this proved to be an effective fix, especially given the small amount of time left to build.

As the teams were ushered up the steps, we had one of our teammates hide in the stairwell leading to the basement. The plan was to alert the teammate when it was our time to launch by shouting “Ca-caaw! Ca-caaw!” At that signal, he would emerge from hiding, catch the coil of wire that we would drop to him, unwind the coil to the length of the rotunda, and prepare to be reunited with our cowboy friend that would ride down the zip-line on his Red Bull bronco-rocket.

Unfortunately, things did not go entirely as planned. First, the wire coil snagged while being dropped to our teammate, resulting in the entire coil falling down, including the lead that was supposed to fit through the straw. This interrupted the flow of our launch and really hurt the seamless show that we were hoping would “wow” our audience. Eventually, we managed to get the wire lead back up the stairs to our patient, but slightly-flustered, straw cowboy. We then proceeded to launch the cowboy down the zip-line, and, at first, it looked like it was going to be a success. However, half-way down the zip-line, the straw caught on the wire, cutting the line in two. To our dismay, the cowboy dropped at only half of the distance that we were hoping to cover.

While the execution of our zip-line design did not go entirely to plan, we still managed to walk away with third place due to the unique design. Despite not winning, I left the competition feeling accomplished, as I learned quite a few lessons from my participation in my innovation team. First, I learned that the obvious design is not always the best design, and that a person’s background may influence a design but should not limit the design. By critically analyzing project requirements and brainstorming ideas with a team comprised of diverse backgrounds, a unique and innovative product can be developed. Next, I learned the value of considering competition when developing an innovative product. In order to develop a product that will stick out from that of your competitors, the molds that constrain standard designs should be challenged. We were able to demonstrate this by replacing a fixed- wing glider concept with that of a zip-line, which proved to be very successful choice, overall. I also learned the value of designing to meet all requirements and to not over-emphasize some requirements over others. For example, by not designing primarily for distance, my team was able to capitalize on the two, somewhat overlapping, design requirements of creativity and showmanship that were not overly emphasized in other designs.

The disappointments in the execution of the design also led to learning experiences. While the device was successfully tested with a short wire, the system had never been proven on a larger scale. Therefore, a more extensive testing plan would have been beneficial, as the actual implementation of the design was relatively complex. Unlike the simplistic launch of throwing a glider from a balcony, the multi-step show involved with the zip-line included many untested “moving parts,” that ultimately led to the system’s failure. If a large-scale test had been conducted, these difficulties would likely have been overcome.

Ultimately, the innovation challenge was a great opportunity to collaborate with a team of students across various disciplines to develop a unique design—all while having fun! Amidst triumphs and failures, the competition offered many lessons that translate beyond this week’s challenge. Although my team did not earn first place, as I had hoped going into the competition, I left with a great experience and look forward to competing again next semester!

Winning Reflection - Parry Draper

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