VIP Project Has Student Researcher Flying High

Isabella Snyder

More than 270 years after Benjamin Franklin made them famous in Philadelphia, a Drexel engineering student is part of a team that’s giving kites a second wind.

Isabella Snyder, a BS/MS mechanical engineering student from Collegeville, Pennsylvania, is working with researchers in the lab of Richard Cairncross, PhD, professor of chemical and biological engineering, to develop kites that can carry air quality sensors and other atmospheric and meteorological measurement equipment.

Snyder is doing the research as part of the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program, which brings together multidisciplinary groups of undergraduate students, graduate students, research staff, and faculty members to tackle novel research and design problems around a theme. The kite project is meant to improve on existing methods of air quality monitoring.

A kite model is tested in a high-speed wind tunnel
A kite model is tested in a high-speed wind tunnel.

“Kites have several advantages over weather balloons and drones,” Snyder explained. “Because they’re tethered, it is easier to visually identify the pilot than with remote-controlled drones, which improves public perception. They are also better in high-wind scenarios and are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than a battery-operated option.”

There are multiple teams of researchers working on the project. Snyder is currently working with the aerodynamics team, developing formulas to predict the stability of different kite designs and building models to test them in a wind chamber. Because the VIP Program allows undergraduate students to work on projects for up to three years, Snyder has been able to see the research develop since the spring of her freshman year, when she started the project as part of the STAR (Student Tackling Advanced Research) program.

“It's really great because I'm able to see where the project started, meet new people are coming in, help pass along the knowledge to them and also expand the project and see where we've gone,” she said. “In classes, we work on a project for one term, but with VIP, I’ve gone from basic Excel to working in Python and helping with the wind tunnel. I’ve spent more time on this than even my co-ops, so it’s really helped me develop,”

Working with Cairncross, Snyder has contributed to research that has been presented at the STAR Scholars Summer Showcase and the American Geophysical Union annual meeting. She has also collaborated with students and researchers at Swarthmore College to perform the wind tunnel testing. She said that the experience has amplified her passion for research.

“I completed a co-op with an incredible company last term, but while I was there, I kept thinking about this project that I’ve been working on for three years, and that’s where my greater interest is,” she said. “Once I finish my master’s degree, I think I might go into a PhD program, because I’ve found this passion for research through VIP.”