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Lori Costello and Pat Anderson with the Embry-Riddle Eco-Eagle. An intrepid team of student engineers from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and their innovative aircraft, Eco Eagle, are lined up against four corporate rivals in the Green Flight Challenge set for Sept. 25-Oct. 3 in Santa Rosa, Calif.

The contest goal: design and build a highly fuel-efficient aircraft that can fly 200 passenger miles per gallon of fuel at an average speed of 100 miles per hour. The prize: $1.5 million, plus bragging rights for having the most technologically advanced aircraft on the planet.

“We don’t look at the prize as a big deal,” says Richard “Pat” Anderson, professor of aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle and the team’s advisor. “The educational process, the research, and the fact we’re producing a greener airplane are the reasons we’re doing it.”

When the Green Flight Challenge--sponsored by Google and hosted by NASA--began a year and a half ago, more than a dozen teams were in the running. Today, it’s down to the Embry-Riddle students and their four corporate competitors: Pipistrel, a Slovenian aircraft maker; Phoenix Air, a distributor of Czech-made aircraft; e-Genius, a German aircraft maker backed by Airbus; and Feuling Parts, which makes aftermarket parts for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

Led by Lori Costello ('09, DB), a graduate student in aerospace engineering, the Embry-Riddle team is confident the Stemme S-10 motor glider they modified will achieve high marks at the contest – but there’s still room for doubt.

“Frankly, 200 miles with one gallon of fuel is a very lofty goal,” Anderson said. “I’m not convinced it’s 100-percent doable in 2011, but the technology is right on the edge.”

Costello says, “It would be amazing if we meet the goal, but at the end of the day, we did the best we could.”

The competition is a homecoming for Costello, who grew up in nearby Danville, Calif., and graduated from San Ramon Valley High School in that city.

Embry-Riddle’s Eco Eagle operates on a hybrid system, with a Rotax 912 ULS 100 HP engine creating the propulsion needed for takeoff and an electric prototype engine that kicks when the aircraft reaches cruising altitude. The Eco Eagle’s 75-foot wingspan gives it a 50:1 lift-to-drag ratio, which helps it achieve maximum efficiency. One of its biggest challenges is the 200 pounds of batteries it carries to power the electric engine.

The battery packs are housed in two troughs in a section of each airframe. Each battery pack is wired via an extensive network to the engine. “Getting the battery technology so that it can go safely in an airplane is no small feat,” Anderson says. “It’s very complex. There are more computers in this airplane than I can count.”

Anderson anticipates it won’t be long before greener aircraft pervade the industry. “The technology of the propulsion system will probably end up mainstream,” he says. “Electric propulsion is the wave of the future. There’s no doubt about it.”

Anderson plans to build on the technology designed for the Eco Eagle. He already has a future project in mind: the modification of a Diamond DA-20 trainer aircraft with a similar hybrid propulsion system. He also expects to enter the Eco Eagle in other national green aviation expos.

Work on the Eco Eagle has been transformative for Costello. The subject of her aerospace engineering master’s thesis, it required using concepts she learned at Embry-Riddle, such as critical and logical thinking, structural analysis, aerodynamics, and aircraft cooling.

“It’s one of the few projects on campus where engineering students actually get to touch a plane,” Costello says. Since October 2009, she has managed 200 student volunteers who designed and constructed the Eco Eagle.

The aircraft will be flown in the competition by test pilot Mikhael Ponso ('03, DB), who piloted the plane for all of its test flights. He is also an alumnus of Embry-Riddle.

The Eco Eagle is just the beginning for Costello, who has a long-term goal of starting her own green aviation business. “I love nature,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to help save the planet. This is a slow, small step toward that.”

Funding for the Eco Eagle project came from generous contributions by the Aviation Education Foundation; Randy Fiorenza ('02, WW); David Robertson, an Embry-Riddle trustee; Rotax Aircraft Engines; Flight Designs; MT-Propeller; Drivetek ag, Lockwood Aviation; Stemme Aircraft; and Moonshine Aviation.