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South Africa and Wits University can once again hold their heads high as a group of students known as the Stormhawks represent the country in the second round of the biennial Airbus Fly Your Ideas competition.

The Stormhawks, drawing inspiration from the TED Talks platform, are proposing an adapted visible light communication system for aircraft control. The crux of this, for non-technical folk reading this, involves transmitting data in planes in the form of light instead electrical wires, the latter being the current method.

First place in this exclusive competition will award the team a prize of R330,000, as well possible employment opportunities to join Airbus as an intern.

The five Stormhawk team members are Pitso Mangoro, Azhar Cassim (both fourth-year aeronautical engineering students), Tshireletso Mango (fourth-year electrical engineering student), Sambharthan Cooppan (master’s student in gas dynamics), and Muhammed Dangor (master’s student in control engineering). Professor Dala mentors them.

Pitsto Mangoro and Sam Cooppan met with SABLE’s Dave Kitley to discuss what led to the conception of the idea, experience from the competition and how this opportunity can hopefully lead to further success down the line.

How did you come up with the idea and form the team?

Pitso came up with the idea from watching TED Talks. The particular topic that sparked it all was on visible light communication, delivered by Harald Haas. We were looking for members who could contribute to the team. A number of people pulled out because of other commitments; studying is a full time profession, but we were eventually left with five competent and motivated members. Our mentor, Professor Dala, has been very helpful in providing support and guidance to the group. He has experience working for Airbus and a number of other top companies and projects.

Do you have a prototype, or is the output pure research?

We are planning to build a prototype to demonstrate Visible Light Communication and how it can work. The competition has been largely research-based till this point, but for the second round, we are required to produce a five-page report and video proving that the concept is viable. Following this we, a prototype is likely.

How do competition and the pressure inspire motivation and further innovation?

As a team, we haven't really looked at other teams. We are focused on our team and what we can do. We have been looking at the types of projects and work that previous finalists have done, but regardless, we want our work to be at that level.

If it wasn't for the competition, would you still have persevered as you have?

Yes, our idea is groundbreaking and uses a novel technology, so we know that the future of such an idea is one that is bright

Is this something that you feel you will incubate to a commercial nature?

We believe so. It is at a very basic level at the moment. Everyone in the group believes in the idea and that it can have a positive effect on the aviation industry.

What other uses are there? Transmitting data by light?

VLC has a wide variety of applications. It can be used in any communication scheme, such as LAN, in robotics. So it is not limited to aircraft.

Can IP be patented?

Well, there is a possibility, but we haven't really focused on that. Our attention has been toward the competition. Under the conditions of the competition, Airbus can use our idea.

So if your idea is selected, is there an option of joining Airbus?

There is a possibility of joining the company if we make it to the final round. All of the 2011 finalists got an internship at Airbus. I believe we do receive credit for the idea as well.

How has the university assisted you with mentorship and financial support?

At the moment, we are asking Wits for funding in order to set up the experiment and produce the video. Beyond the competition, that has not been discussed.

Following your recent experience, can you describe your opinion on entrepreneurship at Wits?

There is plenty of development taking place in our department. I think of the Skywake, which was the first light sport aircraft purely designed and produced in our department. Wits Enterprise also encourages innovation at the university, but to enter a competition is quite demanding given the tough engineering curriculum.

Knowing the energy and unbiased way of thinking that students can have, do you think you should be provided with more time to enter these or come up with more solutions for society?

That is a difficult question. There is so much information that needs to be covered in an engineering program, as an example, and that only touches the surface. I would say that it comes down to the individual, their passion and desire to enter competitions, or their ability to come up with ideas to benefit society.

Looking back on the experience and the hard work required, what learnings do you want to emphasize, and what would you have done differently?

As for learning, we want to emphasize to other students that learning really happens outside the lecture theaters, and ideas run the world.

From left to right: Tshireletso Mango (fourth-year electrical engineering student), Azhar Cassim (fourth-year aeronautical engineering student), Sam Cooppan (second-year master’s student in gas dynamics), Pitso Mangoro (cockpit; fourth-year aeronautical engineering student), and Muhammed Dangor (second-year master’s student in control engineering)

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