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Junior in aerospace engineering wins research award from Air Force

By Joe McAdory

Published: Aug 23, 2021 8:55:00 AM

Emily Wilson Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson’s passion for aerospace research was born in 2011 when Juno XI left the launchpad for Jupiter.

“Being on site at the Kennedy Space Center and watching the launch as a fifth-grader, I said to myself, ‘Whoa! I want to be a part of something like this,’” said Wilson, now a junior in aerospace engineering at the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

“From then on, I wanted to help create something like that, or be a part of a groundbreaking project.”

She’s on her way.

Wilson is one of two 2021 recipients of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Munitions Directorate Outstanding Scholar Award.

Wilson assisted ARFL Munitions Directorate researcher and mentor Stephen Card in his continuing study, “Cooperative Autonomy for Heterogeneous UAV Swarms,” for three months this summer at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.

“Earning this award was a validation of my work,” said Wilson, a Decatur, Alabama, native who grew up in an engineering family just miles from Huntsville and NASA’s Marshall Flight Center. “This showed that I put in my best effort and it produced something tangible. I had never done an internship before, so I was super nervous. I said to myself, ‘I’m here. I don’t know anyone, but I’m going to try my best.’”

Wilson discovered new means to broaden her academic horizons at an Auburn research fair her sophomore year. Before her internship, Wilson had worked with Dr. Vrishank Raghav, assistant professor and Ginn Faculty Achievement Fellow in aerospace engineering, and like the spacecraft she witnessed as a child, Wilson’s research career lifted into orbit.

“In the short time Emily has worked with us, she has shown great promise by being able to pick up concepts quickly,” Raghav, director of the college’s Applied Fluids Research Group, noted. “She has also shown the ability to learn on her own without much guidance from either the graduate students or myself. Her award at AFRL is a testament to her hard work and capabilities.”

Wilson looks forward to studying drone aerodynamics this fall as part of the Auburn University Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

“I love being on the research side of figuring out what needs to be created next,” she said. “I will be studying the aerodynamic forces created by a coaxial rotor of a helicopter and how these effects can be used for drones, particularly tail sitter UAVs, where they take off and land vertically, while flying horizontally. I have fallen in love with the developmental process of creating something and learning how to test new ideas and develop knowledge that others can apply in the field.”

From internship and research opportunities to academic rigor that best prepares her for a career beyond college, Wilson credits Auburn University and the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering providing the tools necessary to succeed.

“At Auburn, it’s about communication and comfort,” she said. “I would not have gotten into research if it had not been an email sent to me by my advisor. We have great access to our professors, who are always helpful. Plus, my professors often ask if what I learn in the classroom can be directly applied to my research.”

While she’s currently focused on academics and researching drone aerodynamics, Wilson aspires to play an instrumental role in something on the world stage.

“One day, I look forward to being a part of groundbreaking research – something really big like the Juno XI,” she said. “Just watching it launch was an unreal, inspiring feeling. I can’t imagine what the scientists and all of those who were involved with the program felt.”

Media Contact: Joe McAdory,, 334.844.3447

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