In this interview I talk with Nathanael Beaudoin-Dion, Avionics lead for the Oronos Polytechnique Rocket team from Polytechnique Montreal Technical University. Each year in June, Oronos competes in the Spaceport America Cup, the world’s largest rocketry competition which takes place in New Mexico at the only commercial spaceport in the world. Enjoy this article as well as the photos of their rockets and videos from this inspiring team.
Judy Warner: Please tell us about your university and what lead Oronos to start a rocketry team.
Nathanael Beaudoin-Dion: Polytechnique Montreal is a Canadian Engineering school, featuring twelve different programs, from electrical to aerospace engineering. Oronos Polytechnique was founded in 2010 by three young rocket amateurs, wanting to reach new heights throughout their time at university. Their passion for rocketry fueled the creation of a design team, which decided to participate in, at the time, the 8th edition of the International Rocket Engineering Competition.
Warner: How many students are on the team and what levels of study are they pursuing?
Beaudoin-Dion: Oronos Polytechnique is composed of 60 students, ranging from freshmen to master students. We also have kept contact with the several generations of members, to build a strong network of students and professionals who can pass on advice year after year.
Oronos Rocket ready to launch
Warner: Please share what types of rockets your team makes, and what their capabilities are.
Beaudoin-Dion: In order to participate in the Spaceport America Cup, we build sounding rockets targeting specific altitudes. These are rockets meant to carry a scientific experiment and gather data during their flight. We have been flying rockets to 10,000 feet, 25,000 feet, and 30,000 feet; as a benchmark, airliners typically cruise at about 30 to 35,000 feet.
In terms of propulsion, we have typically used commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solid motors, but in the meanwhile, we have been developing our student-researched-and-developed (SRAD) hybrid rocket engine. Hybrid engines use a combination of a liquid oxidizer and a solid fuel, as opposed to fully solid liquid engines. This engine was successfully flown in 2018 during the competition, and was awarded the Gil Moore award for innovation. We are now improving this engine in order to bring the first place home.
Rocket transport vehicle
Warner: Tell us about the Spaceport America Cup competition, and how many teams go each year?
Beaudoin-Dion: The Spaceport America Cup is the largest international student rocketry competition. Last year, 120 teams were competing, for a total of about 1500 students. It takes place in the New Mexico desert, at the Vertical Launch Area (VLA) of Spaceport America, the world’s first commercial spaceport.
The competition is split between categories, separating propulsion types (COTS solid, SRAD solid, SRAD hybrid/liquid) and target altitudes (10,000 or 30,000 feet). Each team will compete in a category, and will be awarded points for their technical innovation, the completeness and thoughtfulness of their design, as well as flight points, mostly based on the precision at which the target altitude was reached.
Warner: What kinds of PCBs go inside the rocket and what's the overall role of electronics in the rocket?
Beaudoin-Dion: The electronics inside our rockets are vital to a safe flight. The flight computers are in charge of parachute deployment, data acquisition in order to perfect our flight simulation software, and duplex telemetry with the team on the ground. Additional modules take care of payload support, engine control, and more depending on the specific rocket’s configuration. (See the excellent Oronos-Altium Layout video that they made here.)
Warner: In what ways did Altium Designer® help the team realize their goal of building a functional rocket?
Beaudoin-Dion: Our rockets typically carry 4 to 10 PCBs, which all have to be designed by our avionics team. Altium Designer allows us to streamline our development process, build Common Parts Library™ to increase commonality across our boards, and train our members to PCB design with an industry-standard tool. With avionics being essential to the rocket’s flight, the tools we use are at the core of our success.
Oronos Polytechnique Team at Spaceport Cup 2018
Warner: What kind of safety precautions do amateur rocket teams need to be mindful about?
Beaudoin-Dion: Rocketry is an energetic and failure-prone field. We are brought to deal with explosive devices such as igniters, black powder, and pressurized propellants. Strict security procedures are put in place when dealing with these in order to guarantee everyone’s safety. Another factor is the importance of redundancy. Several systems are critical to the safe flight of a rocket, and every department has to ensure everything has to fail at least twice, including hardware and software, for any consequence to reflect on the rocket’s flight.
Warner: What are the professional aspirations of the student-members of your electrical sub-team?
Most of our students want to pursue space related careers, including working on orbital rocket’s avionics. A large part of our graduates pursue careers in aviation and space fields, working on electronic systems for helicopters, planes, rockets, or satellites.
Warner: Any particularly funny or memorable team moments in the recent year?
Beaudoin-Dion: Designing, building, and launching a rocket is a series of fortunate and less fortunate moments. One of the most challenging and surprising parts of it is working with the different departments. Two years ago, our avionics crashed the rocket. Three years ago, the explosive charges in the rocket blew up our avionics. It’s when we all work together in harmony that we inspire grown adults to the point of tears in the desert--such as last year when their rocket finally came down softly under its parachute.
It’s rocket science, not because it’s easy, but because it’s so challenging and gratifying it when it all comes together!
Warner: Well, all of us here at Altium are inspired by you and your team, Nathanael! I’m sure our readers will be too. Thank you for telling us about your amazing team and work at Oronos.
Beaudoin-Dion: It’s my pleasure, Judy. Thank you for the opportunity.
Enjoy watching this recap video from Oronos at Spaceport Cup 2018.
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