Clear For Take Off

At first glance, a blank sheet of paper appears flat and lifeless. It may seem destined for a printer, pressed between disposable clones, where its purpose is to provide inked text or art to its handler. For Yu-Chieh Chiu, a rising third-year Ph.D. student studying Electrical Engineering at The Grainger College of Engineering, a series of strategic folds and a practiced wrist flick will turn the same piece of paper into a soaring, 3D aircraft.

Chiu’s longtime fascination with paper as a material, combined with an engineering mindset, helped turn his boyhood hobby into a devoted pastime; one that took him to the Red Bull Paper Wings Nationals in Dayton, Ohio, last April, where he took first place in the distance category. The win qualified him to compete at the Red Bull Paper Wings World Final in Salzburg, Austria, the following month.

With a limited timeframe to make his aircraft on-site and only two chances to launch his plane within a narrow landing region, Chiu approached his paper plane design as an engineer when he opted to build a dart-style plane versus a more complex one.

“It’s a design trade-off,” Chiu said. “Do you want the highest performance but less tolerance for error, or do you want something that you know won’t perform as well, but you know you can make within a time frame?”

Yu-Chieh throwing a paper airplane at the Red Bull Paper Wings World Finals

Members of Team United States pose for a portrait during the Red Bull Paper Wings World Finals

Photos by Joerg Mitter / Red Bull Content Pool

Paper dimensions also play an essential role in the design approach.

“A4 paper is actually better for distance because you want more weight,” Chiu said. “Also, when you cut it in half, the ratio remains the same, which is one over root two. With U.S. Letter, cutting in half means the ratio of the length and width are different.”

When Chiu finally launched his plane inside the airfoil-shaped Hangar-7 in Salzburg, he donned his trademark, Block I cap and wore a Team USA shirt. His best distance was 40.34 meters, which placed him 28th out of 62 finalists in his category. It was a decent first showing on the world stage, and Chiu is already looking ahead to the next Paper Wings competition in 2025 as he reflects on lessons learned in Austria.

“For my next plane design, I will aim for more testing and optimization based on the environment and goal,” Chiu said. “As engineers, we optimize from the design to the way we throw the plane, especially when conditions change, such as the paper being lighter, air being hotter and more humid and a ceiling that’s lower than expected; we need to adapt.”

Now back at Grainger Engineering, Chiu continues working at the Innovative Compound Semiconductor Laboratory (ICORLAB) under his graduate adviser, Professor Can Bayram.

Chiu is aware that his research focus in semiconductor photonics in LEDs has little in common with his design philosophy toward paper planes, which encourages him to explore areas in aerodynamics and mechanics. No matter the discipline, problem-solving is at the heart of everything.

“I think it’s good to have an engineering mindset with all types of problems, not just engineering,” Chiu said. “You come up with a new idea; you try to design your new idea to see if it solves the problem and you test it to see if it has achieved your goal. I think this can be applicable across all disciplines.”

Chiu credits Bayram for supporting his multidisciplinary interests and passions.

 Bayram, an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor and a 2018-2019 graduate of the Collins Scholars Program, is no stranger to accommodating his students’ interests and finds value in helping them expand their sense of community outside ICORLAB. For example, he proudly shares that a former student, Hsuan-Ping Lee (Ph.D. ’20, Electrical Engineering), won the 2018 The Voice of Champaign and later performed in a national Chinese singing contest in New York.

“Our students, like most geniuses, are multi-dimensional and complex,” Bayram said. “So, it is a given that they have different interests. I am just glad that some of these hobbies are furthering their graduate school experiences, and I am excited to hear about the next surprise from my students.”

To Bayram, combining a student’s multidisciplinary pursuits with an engineering education is not only compatible but also advantageous for future accomplishments.

“I believe success is multi-faceted, and one cannot claim success unless technical excellence is supported by other, social aspects,” Bayram said. “At Illinois, we are building careers; and it is only natural students find new or expand on their hobbies, which will help them balance their technical responsibilities with somewhat less-technical activities over the course of their lengthy careers.”

Yu-Chieh Chiu holding a paper airplane

Photo by Heather Coit / Grainger Engineering

“The advice I’d offer to any student looking for a sense of community at The Grainger College of Engineering would be to pursue anything that interests you or piques your interest; even if it’s outside your comfort zone.”

Chiu, whose hobby allowed him to connect with diverse groups of people both abroad and at home, advises students here to pursue anything that piques their interest, including areas outside their comfort zone. By taking his own advice, he has found a sense of community.

“The whole experience of Red Bull Paper Wings has shown me that within the wider and very diverse Grainger Engineering community, anyone can find their own direction and sense of belonging,” Chiu said. “Whether it is joining an existing group like one of the many RSOs or participating in something like Red Bull Paper Wings, you can you develop your passions and interests. More importantly, it allows you to meet people who will add to your experience here at The Grainger College of Engineering and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.”

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This story was published June 29, 2022.