Hong Kong aviation

Hong Kong students design space-saving storage for planes inspired by cramped city living

HKU students’ clever luggage storage idea earns them a trip to Toulouse to compete in an aviation design competition, with a big prize up for grabs

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 April, 2017, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 April, 2017, 2:03pm

It’s an age-old dilemma for long-haul fliers: how can you keep your precious belongings close, while giving your legs enough space to stretch?

A group of undergraduate students from the University of Hong Kong’s department of mechanical engineering think they’ve solved the problem – and their idea has scored them a trip to France.

Darwing Li Kin-wing, Leo Lo Kwun-yu, Stewart Leung Shu-wai and Hayden Li Hean-ting, all 20 or 21, have become the first Hong Kong team ever to get to the finals in aircraft manufacturer Airbus’ global aviation innovation competition, “Fly Your Ideas”.

The team – called DEALead – have made the top five out of more than 350 entries for their pop-up underfloor storage compartment for planes, inspired by the way Hongkongers maximise space in their tiny apartments.

They will head to Toulouse next month where they’ll face off against four other teams from the United Kingdom, Nigeria, Australia and France in a bid to win the 30,000 (HK$254,309) prize.

Last year, teammates Leung and Darwing Li visited a plane hangar and noticed there was plenty of empty space in the floor under the seats.

“We thought, why don’t we utilise those spaces?” 21-year-old Leung said . “Every inch [in Hong Kong] is so expensive. Usually we make use of underfloor spaces.”

Originally, the students planned to make a hole in the floor, but realised it was too deep for passengers to reach. Instead, they opted for a storage area that pops out of the floor like the tape deck on a 1990s cassette player.

“I think with this idea, we could eliminate this problem [of cramped legs] and get our legroom back without having to store our belongings up in the overhead compartment,” Hayden said.

The idea could also reduce congestion in the aisles before take-off, as flight attendants wouldn’t have to help people stow their luggage, he said.

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During the flight, unaccompanied minors and elderly people would be able to access what they needed, without asking for help.

“The most fascinating thing about our idea is that we can really make it a success, we can really put it onto an existing plane right now,” Leung said.

It’s taken a lot of work to get to this point.

They entered in June last year, had weekly Skype meetings with an Airbus mentor after being chosen as the top 50, and produced a video to promote their concept.

One of the main challenges was getting aircraft specifications – details which are closely guarded by the airlines. To get around the problem, the group contacted aviation experts.

In April, the team were told over Skype that they were going to Toulouse – and a video of the session shows them erupting in joy and high-fiving each other.

“We just went crazy,” said Lo.

Now there’s only one challenge between them and the prize – making their final prototype and presenting it to the judging panel in France.

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“We will make a real prototype. The prototype we have made is just a draft one,” Lo said.

There are still things they want to improve – they’ll make the final version with non-flammable materials and add security features.

The group’s leader, Darwing Li, says the presentation will be “life changing”.

All four enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the project – something they don’t often get to do as part of their course work.

Mechanical engineering lecturer Dr Edwin Chan Chi-keung said the competition was useful for students to integrate everything they learned in their courses, and put the theory into practice.

“We are very proud of our students, and want to encourage all of our current students to enter,” he said.

“Many students, especially in Hong Kong, focus on examinations only ... I’m not saying examinations are not important, but they’re not everything.”

All four want to work in the aviation industry after they finish their four-year degree.

Darwing Li wants to be an airline pilot, while the others see themselves in the industrial design realm.