In his first year at Ashesi University, Nii Amartei Amarteifio started research on ultra-light helicopters, propelling him to build one himself. After four prototypes, he built his fifth prototype and run his first series of tests on September 11, 2021.
Nii Amartei attended Achimota School, where he read general science, and later gained admission to Ashesi University on scholarship to study Mechanical Engineering.
He chose to pursue a degree in Mechanical Engineering because he loves to find creative and simpler ways of doing things.
For Nii, taking a programme that trains him on how to design and build the ideas he imagins seemed like a good idea and he was excited about the prospect of being formally trained on how to design machines. He gets a lot of fulfilment from translating the things he imagines into material things.
Kuulpeeps had a conversation with Nii Amartei Amarteifio about his journey to building aircraft and his aspirations as a mechanical engineer.
What inspires your passion for innovation and building?
Nii Amartei: Building is something I have always liked doing, even from my infancy when I played with LEGOs. I remember making toy guns out of PVC pipes as well as bookmarks, cardboard crafts and robots and then selling them in school. I also made cheque books out of paper and wrote cheques of large sums of money to my classmates and friends in primary school. Because I was always working with my hands, I developed a liking for form, shape, textures and was even nicknamed ‘touche-à-tout’ (a French phrase that describes someone who loves touching and handling things). There was also an abandoned building full of scrap, iron rods and pieces of wood near my house where I would spend all my time playing. Additionally, I got fascinated whenever I opened my mother’s car bonnet. I felt I could handle all the wires and unscrew all the bolts and nuts and put them back again. After Achimota School, I began to read on manufacturing and technology and ways to build simple machines. Through this, I found out more about the world of engineering and all the great research being done by tech start-ups that exist today. The things they were doing looked so interesting and many times, I felt strongly I could make some of them. This really inspired me to start inquiring more about engineering. That’s what got me interested in innovation and building.
What propelled you to research ultralight helicopters, even before you had the idea of building your own aircraft?
Nii Amartei: I had just completed one of my projects in school (a projectile launching apparatus) and I was very happy with what I had built. This was not my first creation but was my first with metal, so I was anxious to see how it would come out. The strength, design, mechanism and cost of the machine was a success. I got excited and this encouraged me to go on to another. I was looking for any project which would spark my interest, make me learn a lot and was economically feasible. On one occasion when I was in the library, I found myself conducting research on helicopters on YouTube. I like to read on random topics in my free time. I think it was one of those videos that pop up from YouTube recommendations. Later on in my research, I found this class of helicopters (the ultralights) which seemed quite simple and easy to build. They were one-seater and were not as complicated to build as the bigger ones (well obviously), so I decided to start with that and hoped in future, to go on to developing other designs that can carry more than just the pilot.
In the course of your research, what did you find out that eventually led you to begin your project?
Nii Amartei: In my research, what I typically look out for are whether I am passionate enough about the field or not, if it is a profitable field to invest into, the chances of a business coming out of the project, if there is any local expertise I can cooperate with to help execute the project, which parts to order and which parts to produce locally, if the tools I have are capable of fabricating parts in the design, whether I (and all other fabricators I would need) are equipped with the necessary skill set required to fabricate parts, the cost of the entire project, the level of complexity, whether there is enough information out there in the field and the benefits you can get out of the project.
This stage is very important because if done well, it gives you a fair idea of what you’re delving into and whether or not you are ready for it. Even though some findings can only be revealed during the actual implementation of the project, it is necessary to know as much as there is about the field/project before. In some cases, it is better to plan less and actually get your hands dirty on the field more. I did not have all the answers before I began, just enough to begin. Sometimes planning too much gets overwhelming and counterproductive. As I gain more experience, the balance between spontaneity and careful planning will develop and unfold naturally.
Did you get any help in building the aircraft, or did you do it all by yourself?
Nii Amartei: I had help in building the aircraft. Constructing each system in the helicopter led me to meet at least one person who knew more about the parts I used, and the best results were achieved through teamwork. It was easy to get help. Any person I approached for help was very willing to teach me or point me in the right direction. Apart from help in the form of counsel, a friend who is a fitting mechanic helped a lot when it got to the engine stage. Youtube also helped a lot and was the source of almost everything I learnt throughout the project. For parts involving aluminium fabrication, I did not have machines needed to make them on my own, so I had to get them built to specification at Timber Market. Students of Mech Haven, a school I started, also passed through the workshop to help out from time to time. As engineering students, they were happy to apply things they had learnt and get their hands dirty. My coursemates, especially Lesley Lartey also helped out whenever they could. Finally, I thank God for this talent and all the ideas he gives me.
Can you briefly take me through a timeline of all the 5 prototypes you’ve built?
Nii Amartei: I built prototype 1 from May 2018 to July 2018, prototype 2 from September 2018 to January 2019, prototype 3 from May 2019 to September 2019, prototype 4 from January 2020 to August 2020, and prototype 5 from May 2021 to September 2021.
How did you get the materials needed for building the aircraft?
Nii Amartei: Most of the parts were sourced locally and a few, internationally. For those that were sourced locally, I got them from Gallaway, a huge scrapyard in the centre of Accra that stocks every kind of bric-a-brac and machine or metal part, such as pulleys, gears, rods, v-belts, bearings. Others were acquired from the Accra Central Timber market & Taifa which is a place off Accra where I got wood-based parts. I used car parts for a few systems, and I got those at a place by the name Abossey Okai which sells second-hand car parts and other machine scraps. Some of the other parts were bought from places that sell fairly new or used motorcycle and bicycle parts.
How did you fund the entire project?
Nii Amartei: I relied mostly on personal savings to fund the project. A few months into the project, I realized I had to save much more if I actually wanted it to be a success. Because the project was non-income generating, I had to channel funds from other businesses to support it. This led me to explore art and create metal art sculptures with my dad (an artist). Funds from a school I started, Mech Haven, were also channelled into the helicopter project. In this school, I ran summer school programs where engineering students would come to experience and be taught hands-on design & fabrication methods. Ashesi Design Lab was also kind enough to also give me GHS 3000.00 to purchase my engine. My parents were also very supportive of the project and almost all my safety equipment was funded by my mum.
What has been some of the most challenging moments during this project?
Nii Amartei: I experienced welders flash (eye condition from directly exposing your eyes to welding light). My face kept burning so I had to sit under the shower for hours. It didn’t get better, so I was rushed to the hospital (this was around 3 am). My eyes were swollen shut and were tearing. Additionally, I didn’t know what ‘welders flash’ was at the time, so I thought I was going blind.
On one occasion, I used all the money I had on me to fabricate a certain part. It was the upper swashplate in the tail rotor system and the effect of any unequal distribution of mass would be amplified as a result of its angular velocity. Also, this part is in contact with the tail rotor shaft, a high frequency generating member, so prone to excitation due to structural resonance. It had to be made from aluminium, so it was very expensive, delicate and a lot of time had gone into machining it. Since I had used all my money and had nothing for transportation, I had to carry the part all the way home. I built the part at Timber Market in Accra and had to walk with it to my workshop in Kokomlemle. When I got home, this part slipped out of my hands and a small piece chipped off. The entire part had to be redone.
Now, you have built the aircraft to this point, what’s the next step?
Nii Amartei: Right now, I have to go back to the drawing board to analyse the entire project; from the project management practices I employed, to how efficiently each distinct helicopter system is interconnected and to the sustainability of the whole project. I am also building a team so we can share ideas and work more efficiently in the next stages. What went right or wrong with the prototype has been recorded, and now I am looking for ways to improve upon it with the help of software. To achieve this, I must design with tighter tolerances in mind. Currently, the machines in my workshop are not capable of giving me the degree of accuracy I need. With some funding, I can buy better machines that can produce more complex parts easily and would reduce error.
What are your ambitions, and what do you hope to achieve in the near future as a Mechanical Engineer?
Nii Amartei: I hope to improve my skills as an engineer/inventor and project manager. I’d like to go to graduate school abroad to pursue a Master’s degree in engineering, to learn some more and possibly get more work experience to see other approaches to design and problem-solving.
As a long-term goal, I hope to develop a manufacturing hub in Ghana to serve people locally. There is a great deficiency in the practical application of engineering in my country. Even though we cannot produce everything, some simple machines can be built here in Ghana and do not have to be imported. Some examples are recycling equipment (currently under research), food processing and agricultural machinery. By doing so, the cost of importation can be reduced considerably, and it helps grow a countries local industry. I hope to use my education and experiences to help fill this gap and to collaborate with fellow young minds and entrepreneurs.
I also intend to focus some more on my art and metal sculptures. It keeps me creative and serves as a stress-reliever too. Sometimes when I get stuck at a particular stage, I take a break and make some art, and then when I come back to the problem, the solution pops up much faster.
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