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Virginia Tech clinches top 3 places at NASA challenge

After a yearlong effort to explore the use of urban air mobility and regional air mobility vehicles within a firefighting scenario, three Virginia Tech capstone design teams swept the top three spots at this year’s NASA Aeronautics University Design Challenge, the university announced this week.

The annual design competition, sponsored by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, gives student teams the opportunity to solve some of the biggest technical challenges facing the aviation community today.

Virginia Tech’s Water Acquisition And Targeted Release Regional Air Mobility design project brought home first-place honors in the NASA Aeronautics University Design Challenge. Illustration courtesy of Colin Fischer/Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech teams have brought home top honors 11 times over the past decade. Clinching the top three spots in one year is unprecedented. 

Professor Pradeep Raj said he incorporates the design challenge into the classroom, in part because the missions and technical challenges are often system-centric as opposed to focusing on a single vehicle. 

“I’ve found that this approach tends to expand the scope and broadens the design space for the students,” Raj said in a news release. “Designing an operational fleet really opens up the possibilities for different types of vehicles, varying sizes, propulsion systems, and it challenges the students to investigate the overall operational aspects more closely for the fleet to successfully complete their mission.”

The undergraduate curriculum within Virginia Tech’s Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering leads up to a yearlong capstone design experience in the senior year. Aerospace engineering design courses use the group design process to both better simulate the way design is done in the real world and promote the benefits of collaborative learning. 

Raj and Professor of Practice Wm. Michael Butler jointly served as the faculty instructors and advisors for the air vehicle design track within the capstone design course for the 2021-22 academic year.

Eight air vehicle teams were advised by Raj and Butler. Three teams ultimately submitted their written proposals to NASA, and out of approximately a dozen university teams participating, all three Virginia Tech teams rose to the top of the pack. 

Student teams were asked to design a suite of vehicles that can collectively deliver 3,000 gallons of water to a fire location in a single pass. The vehicles needed to be able to gather water from local water sources, such as lakes, rivers or oceans, which require vertical short takeoff and landing operations. Currently, helicopters are used to reach these small water sources. 

Recent graduate Colin Fischer served as team lead for H2AERO, the team that took home first-place honors.

H2AERO’s fleet design focused on maximizing water delivery and minimizing take-off distance while maintaining energy usage, cost and noise standards appropriate for Regional Air Mobility. The aircraft’s very short or vertical takeoff and landing capabilities allow it to bridge the gap between the U.S. Forest Service’s conventional take-off and landing fixed-wing aircraft and vertical takeoff and landing helicopters. The fleet of four aircraft can access small bodies of water through their unique scoop tube and high lift-producing distributed electric propulsion devices, delivering 750 gallons of water per vehicle and 3,000 gallons per pass.

Team IRIS, led by recent graduate Ben Judelson, designed an aerial firefighting system composed of one remotely piloted lead plane and eight manned water tankers.

The Firefighting Gobbler, led by Michael Deitch, proposed “The Flock,” an aerial firefighting system comprising six very short or vertical takeoff and landings capable aircraft that met requirements in an environmentally friendly and cost-efficient manner. 

The three Virginia Tech teams have been invited to visit NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton in October to share their work in person.

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MECC receives federal grant to launch health information technology data analytics certificate program

Mountain Empire Community College has received a $887,676 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services grant through the Health Resources and Services Administration to create and deliver a career studies certificate program in health information technology data analytics, the school announced this week.

The program is designed for health professionals to develop health care business data management skills through database management, change and project management strategies. Health IT data analysts work in hospitals, clinics, insurance companies, clinical research, consulting firms and other health-related facilities.

The data analyst program, which is set to begin this fall, runs for two semesters. Its aim is to provide advanced data and project management training for health information management graduates so that they may advance their careers and make room for entry-level employees to enter the industry.

MECC is the only community college in Virginia to receive the HHS award, which is part of nearly $60 million federal investment to grow the health care workforce and increase access to quality health care in rural communities, including nearly $46 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan.

The grant will fund faculty costs, curriculum development and scholarships for students for three years.

For more information on the program, contact Nora Blankenbecler at 276-523-9054 or at Additional program information is available online.

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Virginia Tech and Zimbabwean teams lead discovery and naming of Africa’s oldest known dinosaur

An international team of paleontologists led by Virginia Tech has discovered and named a new, early dinosaur, the university announced Wednesday.

The mostly intact skeleton was found by a graduate student in the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences and other paleontologists over the course of two digs, in 2017 and 2019. 

Artistic reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi (in the foreground) with the rest of the Zimbabwean animal assemblage in the background. It includes two rhynchosaurs (at front right), an aetosaur (at left) and a herrerasaurid dinosaur chasing a cynodont (at back right). Illustration courtesy of Andrey Atuchin/Virginia Tech.

The findings of this new sauropodomorph — a long-necked dinosaur — newly named Mbiresaurus raathi were published Wednesday in the journal Nature. The skeleton is, thus far, the oldest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Africa. The animal is estimated to have been 6 feet long with a long tail. It weighed anywhere from 20 pounds to 65 pounds. The skeleton, missing only some of the hand and portions of the skull, was found in northern Zimbabwe.

From the team’s findings, Mbiresaurus stood on two legs and its head was relatively small, like its dinosaur relatives. It sported small, serrated, triangle-shaped teeth, suggesting that it was an herbivore or potentially an omnivore.

“The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi fills in a critical geographic gap in the fossil record of the oldest dinosaurs and shows the power of hypothesis-driven fieldwork for testing predictions about the ancient past,” said Christopher Griffin, who graduated in 2020 with a Ph.D. in geosciences from the Virginia Tech College of Science and is now a post-doctorate researcher at Yale University

Griffin added, “These are Africa’s oldest-known definitive dinosaurs, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world. The oldest known dinosaurs — from roughly 230 million years ago, the Carnian Stage of the Late Triassic period — are extremely rare and have been recovered from only a few places worldwide, mainly northern Argentina, southern Brazil and India.”

The international team at the heart of this discovery included paleontologists from the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, and Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil.

Found alongside Mbiresaurus were an assortment of Carnian-aged fossils, including a herrerasaurid dinosaur, early mammal relatives such as cynodonts, armored crocodylian relatives such as aetosaurs, and, in Griffin’s description, “bizarre, archaic reptiles” known as rhynchosaurs, again typically found in South America and India from this same time period.

Much of the Mbiresaurus specimen is being kept in Virginia Tech’s Derring Hall as the skeleton is cleaned and studied. All of the Mbiresaurus skeleton and the additional found fossils will be permanently kept at Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe.

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Children’s musical coming to Radford University

Auditions have concluded and the cast is set for Radford University’s annual performance aimed
at young audiences: “The Rainbow Fish Musical.”

The play is a cautionary tale about vanity and self-importance inspired by the popular children’s
book “The Rainbow Fish” by Swiss writer and illustrator Marcus Pfister.

Sydney Pepper (right) will play Octopus and Zoe Keith will take a dual role as Sardine and Clownfish. Sarah Lindsay Merriman (center) will play Little Fish.

Associate professor and stage veteran Robyn Berg will direct and choreograph the show. Dylan Jones plays the title role and is accompanied by Sarah Lindsay Merriman as Little Fish and Sydney Pepper as Octopus. Three other actors will play dual roles: Georgi Fenimore plays Starfish and Ms. Minnow, Zoe Keith plays Sardine and Clownfish, and the roles of Pufferfish and Hermit Crab will be performed by Olivia Nargi. Graduate student Kole Butler is the musical director and senior Drue Maggio is the assistant director. Senior Meagan Cox will serve as stage manager.

Performances will take place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Nov. 12 and again at 2 p.m. Nov. 13 in Bondurant Auditorium in Preston Hall on Radford’s main campus. General admission is $8 and $4 for children. Radford University students can get in for free. Faculty and staff tickets are $6.