High school students build experimental electric aircraft at ‘Iolani School
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If you thought the kids in auto shop got to do cool things in high school, wait until you hear about Martin Emde's extracurricular program at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu.
Emde, a former Boeing engineer who worked on the wide-body 777 airliner, worked with a dedicated and talented group of students to take an open-source ultralight aircraft design, upgrade it to a fully FAA certified, N-numbered experimental electric aircraft, and build it inside the school's Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership.
"The majority of it was just raw aluminum tubing and things like that, and the fuselage frame is a steel-welded structure," Emde says. "The students had to put it all together and do a fair amount of welding."
They then had to take it completely apart to get it out of the building, and put it back together 40 miles away at a North Shore airfield.
Five years in the making
The aircraft — a single-seat experimental electric-powered motor glider dubbed the E-Hawk — was finally unveiled to the public in a campus ceremony earlier this month. But the idea for the project was born in 2017.
Emde, a faculty member and electrical engineer in the school’s "iDepartment," said he had previously done electric vehicle conversions at a previous school, turning an old gas powered car into an EV.
"That was in the early 2000s, and we were on the cutting edge," he says. "You couldn't really buy an electric car back then, although now every major automaker has an offering in the electric vehicle space."
With that vehicle category entering the mainstream, Emde looked ahead.
"I thought, well, with the evolution of batteries and the technology, let's try the next step, and that is electric flight," he recalls. "And fortunately I had the resources available at ‘Iolani School to actually pursue something like that."
As a robotics instructor, he was able to tap a group of already technically and mechanically inclined students to get started.
"I hand picked the initial wave of students, students that I knew had certain skills and might be interested," he says. "They didn't really know what to make of it, but they were looking for something to do on the extracurricular level outside of normal school hours, so their reaction was something like, 'Oh, this sounds cool. I think I'll try it.'"
Neither the students nor Emde knew what they were getting into.
"They really didn't have any idea of the scope and the challenges that would lie ahead, but because of the skills that we were able to impart via robotics electives, they felt pretty confident that they could at least get something done with regards to it," he recalls.
"This is something new for me as well—I've never built an aircraft before, let alone an electric one," he adds. "So we kind of learned together."
A long runway
The first step was to choose a starting point. After some research, Emde and the students settled on the EMG-6 gas-powered motor glider, designed by Rainbow Aviation in Missouri. The glider design was open source, freely available to use and adapt, making it a flexible platform to build upon.
All of the electronics were designed and finished by students, including power modules, instrument panels, and circuit boards. The main upgrade to be made was to the propulsion system, with the key goal of the project being to fly the plane on renewable energy.
That means an electric motor, and batteries. And batteries mean additional weight. As a result, the team had to change the classification of the aircraft.
"Technically it is not an ultralight, as defined by the FAA," Emde explains. "If it was an ultralight, then you don't need to get an airworthiness certificate or even register it, you just need a pilot's license and watch where you fly."
The change required a significant amount of communications and paperwork.
"We had to get it registered with an N number and get an airworthiness certificate—that was a big part of the process," he says. "We were working and at the same time waiting for the FAA to respond to certain things and the certificate took a while."
And then there was the pandemic.
"We lost a good year and a half due to COVID," he adds.
Over the course of the project, students got to try their hand at a variety of roles.
"They had the flexibility to do whatever they want, so if they wanted to pursue a certain aspect of it, they had that freedom," Emde explains. "At some point, they would fall into an area of specialty, where they would be most confident, most comfortable, and would be able to produce the best results."
Students handled everything from project management to community outreach.
"We had some students that were really interested in coding, so they would write the code for the avionics, the instrument panel," he said. "On the other side was mechanical design, where they would design a number of different 3-D parts that would actually go on the aircraft."
Dealing with paperwork was a job in and of itself.
"Another big one was communication, and that would come in the form of dealing with the FAA in terms of the certification and all that other stuff that went along with it," Emde says.
Blue sky thinking
"This was a project that was developed to be an educational tool to expose students to different types of technology, how to use different tools, fabrication techniques, and things like that," Emde says. "But the bigger picture is in terms of sustainability."
The long-term vision is to chart a path to sustainable flight in Hawaii. Emde says the state has two things going for it.
"One, our abundance of renewable energy—we pretty much have everything right? We have the wind, we have the sun, we have geothermal, we have wave energy," he says. "Two, we only have short distances in our island to fly."
He says trans-Pacific travel on electric engines is simply impractical with today's technology.
"But in a regional environment, given where battery tech is and because of what they've done with electric cars, we are at a point now where we can start exploring, at least on a small scale, regional electric air transport."
Hawaiian Airlines, Emde notes, recently invested in an electric sea-glider company. And he says he's excited at the development of EVTOLs, or electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles.
"It's Uber in the sky, I guess you would call it, and there are companies that have proven they can do 150 miles at up to 200 miles an hour on batteries only," he says. "That's really close to doing an interIsland trip."
The E-Hawk taps into these ideas.
"This idea of a school project hopefully exposes the students to the idea that it may be possible, that we may be at a time now where we can we can pursue it, where it may be commercially viable to do electric flight from point A to point B."
Getting ready for takeoff
The E-Hawk had to be fully disassembled and carried down the stairs at ‘Iolani School over the weekend, hauled out to Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore, and re-assembled in a hangar.
"We did some 'back-seaters,' where I taxied it and drove it around on the ground," Emde says. "And I let another student do the same because, you know, when you work on a project for three or four years you want to experience some fun too."
There's still more ground-handling to be done, taxiing and testing on terra firma. But Emde says everyone's excited to see the E-Hawk take flight.
"While we were building this up, I got my pilot's license in the hopes that I would be one of the pilots," Emde admits. "But I won't be the initial pilot, we need someone that's flown all different types of aircrafts and has thousands of hours of experience."
That could be his flight instructor, or another glider pilot they met at the airfield.
"Once everything checks out, I will do the required training so that I'm comfortable flying it as well," he says. "There will not be a student flying it, however."
Emde is curious what the ultimate capabilities of the E-Hawk will be.
"Based on the size of the battery, we're anticipating about a 30 minute flight time, and the altitude would be based on how high can you get in 30 minutes, so conceivably it could go up to 10,000 or 12,000 feet before you run out of oxygen to breathe," he explains. "But we won't know for sure until we actually start flying it."
Although the E-Hawk project started as an extracurricular program, ‘Iolani School says it will be folded into an Advanced Innovation and Leadership Project Course offered at the school.
As for Emde, there are a lot of other great things going on.
"This is definitely one of the longer duration, and physically the biggest project that we worked on, But there there are a number of other projects," he says.
Emde notes that the school supports five levels of robotics, from the eighth grade through the senior year. And a recent project has focused on marine research, starting with the Ala Wai Canal adjacent to campus.
"We built what we call the Ala Wai Catamaran, which is basically designed to be a research vessel that can perform autonomous missions, collecting water quality data, temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen," he says. "We just recently put sonar on it so that you could conceivably map the floor of the Ala Wai to see where its deepest and what lies beneath."
The vessel follows an earlier student project where a water sampling drone was developed. At the same time, Emde says, a traditional six-man canoe has been built from scratch in the school's fabrication space.
"We've got a bunch of projects in the pipeline," he says.
To learn more about the E-Hawk project, visit ehawk.iolani.org. Wayne Akiyama contributed to this report.