Ensuring Long-Lasting Quality From Montreal Teams In The Spaceport America Cup

For the past 11 years, the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition (or IREC) has enjoyed the honor of being one of the most advanced and difficult rocketry competitions in the world. The rockets launched are some of the largest and most complex and the teams are made up of some of the world’s most skilled engineering students.

From IREC to Spaceport America

A launch at the 2016 IREC

Much of the 11 year history of the competition can be found on the website of the Experimental Sounding Rocket Association. The most relevant detail is that in 2016 the competition consisted of two categories: Basic and Advanced. Basic category rockets needed to travel to 10,000 feet while Advanced category rockets needed to travel to 23,000 feet. Both needed to be carrying a payload of 10 lbs and be fully recoverable. Of note was the fact that the Advanced category required that a custom rocket motor be used, while in the Basic category, both student-built and off-the-shelf motors were accepted.

A summary of rankings from a Turkish team

Previously, Canadian teams had done very well. A prime example of this is the results of the competition last year, where the Basic Category top 5 had only Canadian teams. This happened despite a handicap which is faced by almost all Canadian teams: building a rocket motor. Due to Canadian regulations, building solid rocket motors is extremely difficult, since both ammonium perchlorate and potassium nitrate are heavily regulated. This leaves Canadian teams to struggle in developing the more difficult hybrid rocket motor. In the competition, this meant that Canadian teams were taking a 50 point (approximately 3.6% of the available points) handicap.

This brings us to this year’s competition: the Spaceport America Cup. Now there are six categories. They are divided by three motor types (commercial off-the-shelf, student-built solid motors and student-built hybrid or liquid) and each motor type has a 10K and a 30K altitude category. Right off the bat, Canadian teams have a leveled playing field in the commercial off-the-shelf categories, since the motor will definitely not be scored. However, that still leaves the other four categories unchallenged.

Production value has definitely increased!

Previous Cooperation

So far, there has been a large amount of cooperation between Montreal rocketry teams. Space Concordia, RockÉTS from École Technologie Superieure and Oronos from École Polytechnique (as well as GAUL from the university of Laval) have all worked together to a certain extent and have shared a bit of information (not to mention tools and booze) with the other teams.

Teamwork is very important!

However, the technical side of the agreement has been low-key, with most of the effort going into joint publicity events, like the Unveiling at the Cosmodome de Laval organized by ÉTS. The technical side has mostly been limited to emergency assistance during the competition and the CQF (Club Québecois de Fuséonautique) workshops.

Guaranteeing Quality

The first step is making sure that a Montreal team can launch perfectly every time. Since many rockets at the competition usually experience a failure of some kind, Montreal rockets all experiencing perfect flights will already put the teams very high in the rankings. Making sure that this guaranteed level of quality exists has already been mostly assured by mentorship from the CQF. Each team usually has an experienced mentor from the CQF with an L4 certification. The mentor is usually able to catch rookie mistakes made by the team.

This mentorship should continue. Making sure that all rockets flown meet the exacting standards of the CQF is an excellent way to guarantee perfect flights. However, to really maximize the points in the competition, three more things are needed: engineering work, in-house systems and innovation.

The engineering work that must be there includes thorough documentation, proper analysis and rigorous testing. in these areas, sharing some low-level of information would be beneficial to all teams involved. While the most cutting-edge information need not be shared, basic information possessed by only one team would be more beneficial if shared among all the teams.

Sharing can sometimes be difficult. While most of us want to help our colleagues, we still want to remain competitive. The trick will be striking a balance that allows the Montreal teams to be ahead of all American teams, but also allows for some rewarding competition among the teams from Montreal.

So what should be shared? How should it be shared? Both good questions. I’d suggest setting up some sort of private web forum. Design data on basic systems could be stored there. As well, the teams could develop a set of common requirements which lay out the method by which a rocket should be defined, designed and tested to ensure maximum quality. More than anything else, I’d also encourage teams to ask about how to do things they aren’t sure about and a web forum could be the ideal way to encourage this.

Further meet-ups between the teams could also be planned, not just to socialize, but also to swap ideas. One concept that seems particularly interesting is a meeting between teams, where some ideas for new and innovative concepts could be brainstormed, or, better yet, the teams could challenge each other to try building new and innovative sub-systems. For instance, the Montreal teams could all be competing among each other to see who could build the best antenna for a rocket.

Resource Sharing and the Propulsion Issue

Besides sharing information, there are other things that could be shared among teams. Last competition, Space Concordia created a software in Matlab to simulate the flight of the rocket. This software had several advantages over other software, as it could take data directly from CFD simulations, it was validated with actual test data and it could be easily combined with many different optimization methods. There was a plan to make this an opensource software which was shared among teams, but nothing came of it since those responsible for the software immediately left for full-time jobs after the competition. Reviving this idea could be an excellent way to create a cooperative project between the Montreal teams, as well as providing a path to more effective resource-sharing.

Other resources that could possibly be shared include manufacturing resources and lab space. Space Concordia could connect other teams with the Concordia center for composites, or teams could compile a list of the best manufacturers or manufacturing resources on the island. There are many possibilities.

This brings us to the most difficult issue, and one which the teams from Montreal have yet to fully solve: propulsion development. Commercial off-the-shelf propulsion only makes up 1/3rd of the competition categories. Obviously, the Montreal teams must endeavor to dominate in 2/3rds of the categories or more. As an aside, it is likely that the competition will shrink to 4 categories in following years. This would mean that all student researched and designed propulsion systems will most likely be lumped into 2 categories. This is likely since the 4 categories with custom propulsion may be very sparsely populated by the time the competition rolls around.

Team Oronos from Polytechnique Montreal has already made excellent progress towards a working hybrid motor

Either way, Montreal teams need a way to make sure that none of these categories are beyond their reach. This could mean the establishment of a shared test site, as well as establishing resources that outline the path to acquiring necessary components like fuel and oxidizer, as well as proper procedures to comply with all local laws and to test safely. The design could also be cooperated on. Certain components that are difficult to design and manufacture could be designed by joint teams and a standard could be established for Montreal teams to follow.

The biggest issue comes with dealing with law enforcement, which will be particularly important if the teams want to build a solid rocket motor. If authorities were contacted by delegations with students from all the universities, the chances of successfully obtaining permits, as well as the trust from organizations concerned with the safety of such activities, would be considerably higher.

The Future?

At this point, manufacturing is going forward and it looks like all the Montreal teams are heading for successful flights. I predict that we will be seeing some of the best rockets to ever come out of Montreal this year.

The Montreal teams have already proven that they have the ability to not only compete on the same level as American teams, but to also surpass them. Now this capability should be taken to the next level. With strong cooperation and localized competition, the Montreal teams could be truly unbeatable.