How one MechSE undergrad dabbles in cars, drones, and space


Maddie Yang

Justin Kao
Justin Kao
Justin Kao is a sophomore studying mechanical engineering at Illinois. He is the Captain of the Eco Illini Supermileage team as well as an undergraduate researcher in Aerospace Engineering Professor Francesco Panerai’s experimental group within the Center for Hypersonics and Entry Systems Studies (CHESS). Kao also does drone photography in his free time, including shooting videos of the new Sidney Lu Mechanical Engineering Building. Kao is clearly an independently motivated student. He enjoys seeing the full life cycle of product designs and looks for those opportunities within his work.

Kao originally became involved with Eco Illini Supermileage as a freshman. At Quad Day he was pulled towards the automotive teams looking for hands-on technical experiences, despite knowing nothing about cars. He ended up choosing Eco Illini Supermileage because he enjoyed the smaller team environment: “I found that Eco made it really easy for me to take on a project because the team was small … I also enjoy the tight-knit community of the team and the ability to work closely with more senior members,” said Kao. Through Eco, Kao was able to learn hands-on skills in the Engineering Student Project Laboratory (ESPL) including mill training, lathe training, and TIG welding. He is looking forward to becoming CNC trained. Kao also configured the team website.

As Captain of the team, Kao focuses on the technical oversight. A large part of his job is making sure that the different subsystems of the car are integrated properly and work together correctly. Recently he worked on adding mechanical inserts into the carbon fiber monocoque for Eco’s car. These allow them to strengthen different parts of the body of the car, which is otherwise flimsy, and create “hardpoints” on the car, which connect to different subsystems. His knowledge as the lead of system integration allowed him to make sure everything put together correctly.

Kao wearing drone racing goggles.
Kao wearing drone racing goggles.
Simultaneously, working for CHESS, Kao studies how to simulate hypersonic conditions through a high entropy reaction. This involves many high-temperature gases, which need to be heated. To maintain such temperatures, a feedback loop with sensors and instruments is required. Kao works on data acquisition and instrumentation, looking at different sensors to determine which would be the best for their purposes. Since the sensors and instruments have to be under such extreme environments it’s important they work properly under the conditions to collect the necessary information. This data is fed into a program called LabVIEW where Kao can export the data which is used to vary different instruments used.

For fun, Kao does drone photography and racing. Last summer he tested for an FAA commercial remote drone pilot. Modeling after his brother’s drone company, he started his own company in his hometown of Huntington Beach, California. He also got involved in drone racing, which involves wearing a special pair of goggles that create a first-person point-of-view from the drone. While quarantined in California this year, Kao took photos and videos to make some extra money. This semester, on campus, he has taken photos and video of the Lu MEB construction for the MechSE department.

“I actively look to make a positive impact on the world, and for now, I’m definitely geared towards entering the aerospace/space industry as a mechanical engineer. Simply put, space is cool.”

Above, Kao races one of his drones.