MechSE team flies high in airport design of the future


Julia Park

A team of MechSE undergraduates including Hrushikesha Athreya, Max Marsh, and John Scott was one of eight finalists in the 2022 Gateways to Blue Skies: Airports of Tomorrow (Blue Skies) Competition, which centered around ideas of airports of the future.

Hrushikesha Athreya, John Scott, and Max Marsh hold their finalist certificates.
Hrushikesha Athreya, John Scott, and Max Marsh hold their finalist certificates.

The team’s self-initiated project, titled “Modern Day Wright Brothers,” focused on the use of alternative fuels and incorporation of improved ground charging units. Teaching Associate Professor Leon Liebenberg served as their faculty advisor. The MechSE Illinois team, along with the other seven teams, presented their design concepts to a panel of industry experts earlier this month at the Blue Skies Forum in Virginia.

Finalist teams received $6,000 stipends to facilitate full participation in the competition. Winning team members will have the opportunity to intern at one of NASA’s Aeronautics centers during the 2022-23 academic year.

As the aviation industry moves into the future of Zero Emission Aviation by 2050, planes and airports of today will be vastly different in tomorrow’s landscape. In an effort to ignite progress toward climate-friendly aviation, the inaugural competition, sponsored by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) sought to engage current university students in imagining and designing aeronautics’ future.

Aviation efficiency and safety are top-of-mind for industry experts. As the future unfolds, NASA ARMD is researching technologies in fuels, aircraft design and other areas that reduce noise, fuel use and harmful emissions. NASA-developed technologies have contributed to improving aviation sustainability both economically and environmentally in recent decades. The Blue Skies competition seeks to inspire the incoming generation of engineers, planners, architects and other related disciplines to conceptualize changes to new airport designs or airport overhauls to ensure technology changes in the air go hand-in-hand with infrastructure changes on the ground.

"Impressively, John, Hrushi, and Max tackled their net-zero carbon solutions by considering the interconnected societal, technological, economic, environmental, and governance challenges of airports. They carried the MechSE flag high at this prestigious competition and impressed with their novel sustainability ideas,” Liebenberg said.     

The eight team finalists in this year’s competition included:

  • Carnegie Mellon University — Project Title: Sustainability and Connected Autonomy: A New Era for Aviation.  Advisor: Dr. Sebastian Scherer
  • Manhattan College — Project Title: Soaring Into the 2050s. Advisor: Dr. Bahareh Estejab
  • Ohio State University — Project Title: Project ECOAir.  Advisor: Ethan Rivera
  • University of California, Irvine — Project Title: Blue Skies, Green Fuels, Bright Future.  Advisor: Dr. Jacqueline Huynh
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — Project Title: Modern Day Wright Brothers.  Advisor: Dr. Leon Liebenberg
  • University of Pennsylvania — Project Title: Carbon Negative: A Modular Approach to Advancing Green Airport Infrastructure.  Advisor: Dr. Jacqueline B. Kirtley
  • University of Texas at Austin — Project Title: Airports Supporting the Future of Aviation.  Advisor: Dr. Lina Sela
  • University of Texas at Austin — Project Title: Bluebonnet Skies.  Advisor: Dr. Shannon O'Brien

“Moving the needle on aeronautics in terms of climate change is of utmost interest to NASA Aeronautics and the entire industry,” said Koushik Datta, NASA Aeronautics University Innovation Project Manager and Blue Skies sponsor. “It is also of global interest, as climate-friendly improvements in air travel will have ripple effects around the world. Our goal is to engage and inspire the next generation of aviation industry experts to have a mind toward sustainability as they work through their education and step into their careers.”

For more on the Gateways to Blues Skies: Airports of Tomorrow competition, visit