WSU Hovercraft Project Cleared for Takeoff

Members of the WSU hovercraft team pose with the vehicle following its successful test on the Bonneville Salt Flats, September 10, 2010.

OGDEN, Utah – Someday in the near future, years’ worth of labor by Weber State University students may be blown to smithereens, and computer and electronics engineering technology professor Bill Clapp couldn’t be happier.

Clapp estimates that since 2008, nearly 25 students have spent between 10,000 and 15,000 hours working on a senior project known as the hovercraft autonomous target vehicle (HATV), or hovercraft for short.

Loosely modeled after air boats used in swamps, the hovercraft is a 6 feet wide by 10 feet long, remote-controlled vehicle. The current version has a 7-horsepower lift motor and a 23-horsepower motor that propels it. Clapp envisions the vehicle as a potential light-weight, inexpensive, environmentally friendly craft that could be used for military target practice.

With permission from the Bureau of Land Management, Clapp and a group of 10 students spent much of Sept. 10 putting the latest version of the hovercraft through its paces on the Bonneville Salt Flats test range.

“The results from our tests on the Salt Flats were spectacular,” Clapp said. “It met all of our goals for this round of testing: speed, maneuverability, infrared visibility, modular capability and cost.”

During the session, the vehicle achieved 55 mph, close to the team’s goal of 60 mph. In addition to evaluating its performance, the crew was able to quickly change out parts on the unit, attesting to its modular features. Clapp said the two motors on board provide a heat signature that could be picked up by a pilot’s weapons system. At a budget of approximately $10,000 to build, the hovercraft is much less expensive than current military target vehicles.

“This prototype has the potential to be a more cost-effective moving target for the Department of Defense to practice air-to-ground missile tests and training missions,” said Clapp, who also noted that the hovercraft is designed to have the same footprint and maneuverability as a small pickup truck.

The device has attracted the interest of the U.S. military. Clapp, who retired as a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, knows a thing or two about meeting military specifications. In 2003 he spent a year working with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

The Salt Flats test was the final evaluation of the second phase of the project. Students are debriefing on what did and didn’t work on the Salt Flats, incorporating what they learn into the plans for the third iteration of the vehicle.

“One of the challenges of creating a project like this is the turnover in students from year to year,” Clapp said. “Yet that turnover mirrors what happens in industry and helps students understand what it would be like to be reassigned to a new project or hand one off to other peers.”

 Artist rendering
In phase three, the construction of the chassis will be a senior project for manufacturing engineering technology students. That will allow Clapp’s students to focus on the electronics systems, starter systems and electrical battery charge on board.

Clapp lists a series of changes that need to occur in the next version of the hovercraft, including reducing the weight by a third to increase its speed, continuing to develop the autonomous control system and completing the remote start-up system with enhanced instrumentation.

Ultimately, Clapp hopes that if the project can reach a certain level of performance, it will lead Hill Air Force Base officials to purchase one.

Larry Lusk, a sophomore from Roy, Utah, and Jon Carbine, a senior from South Ogden, Utah, served as the pilots for the Salt Flats test. Lusk is already looking ahead to tackling the next version.

“We’re going to explore communications in the next phase,” said Lusk, who serves as project manager on the hovercraft.

“That’s right up our alley,” said A.J. Fredrickson, a senior electronics engineering technology major from North Ogden, Utah, who has worked on the project since the original half-scale concept vehicle in 2008.

Clapp said that during the past two years, students have found “golden nuggets,” ideas that have been incorporated into the vehicle, which improved it. “I’ve given out a ton of golden nuggets on this project,” Clapp said.

Clapp said the project also provides plenty of learning and team-building opportunities for students.

“Anyone can do homework,” he said, “but to build a device like this takes working together and contributing to all the different facets and getting them to function together. This project asks a lot of our students. It is demanding, much like what they will experience in industry.”

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Bill Clapp, computer and electronics engineering technology professor
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John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
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