Writing the Proposal


The key to a good DBF proposal is to address everything in the rubric. The rubric can be found on the DBF website for each year. In general, our LaTeX template should cover all of the formatting requirements automatically. For the past several years, the point breakdown and key items for each section has been as follows:

  1. Executive Summary (10 points)
    • Objective Statement
    • Planned approach to achieve all objectives
    • Includes main points from subsequent sections
  2. Management Summary (40 points)
    • Describe the organization, the roles of each team and individual skill sets required
    • Organization chart (by team/function, individual names are not required for the proposal)
    • Schedule / Major Milestone chart
    • Budget (not only for expected materials and manufacturing of the airplane, but for travel to the competition site and any other expenses associated with the competition)
  3. Conceptual Design Approach (20 points)
    • Decomposition of mission requirements into sub-system requirements.
    • Preliminary design / sizing results; concept sketch, if available (does not have to be representative of the final design)
    • Sensitivity Study of Design Parameters
  4. Manufacturing Plan (15 points)
    • Preliminary manufacturing flow
    • Describe critical processes or technologies required
  5. Test Planning (15 points)
    • Component and ground test plan
    • Flight test plan

All of the team’s activities for the year start with the proposal. It is important to do it well, and start on it as soon as possible after the rules for the year are published, usually in mid-September. Here is a step-by-step plan for producing an acceptable proposal. Also note that the proposal and final report have some overlap, so there are some details that aren’t included in the proposal that are included in the final report that you might as well do now, since they’ll help you along the way. As such, don’t forget to read through all the available guides here so you know what to do when.


You might be supprised at how many points will be lost if you don’t read the rules. In fact, if you don’t read the rules, you probably won’t write a proposal that will get accepted. Every team member should read ALL of the rules at least once before starting on the proposal. As you read the rules, take note of what you need to do to get points, not just on the proposal, but for the whole competition. If you don’t know the metrics for success, you’ll miss things and lose points all along the way. You may also note that sometimes the rules indicate that the better your proposal is, the better slot you receive for the flyoff. So putting in the time to know your stuff and do well now is worth it in the end.

Step 1.a: Create a Checklist

After reading through the rules once, go through again and create a checklist for every task listed therein. That way you won’t miss anything as you move forward.

Step 1.b: Double Check the Template

The LaTeX template should have been updated the previous year to the most recent formatting requirements. Double check it against the current year’s formatting guidelines and adjust anything if necessary.

Step 2: Translate the Rules

Only after you have read the rules (hopefully multiple times), made a checklist, and updated the template if needed, are you ready to start writing. The first thing you should write is the first paragraph or so of the Conceptual Design Approach section. That is, you need to decompose the mission requiremements into sub-system requirements.

Writing these paragraphs first servers multiple purposes. First, you write the paragraphs. Second, it reinforces the metrics of success for the missions, which will help you make decisions along the way. Third, it forces you to consider what sub-systems there are, and therefore leads directly into deciding on your team organization. Fourth, it also helps you to start designing the sensitivity analysis for your design variables.

Step 3: Organize Yourselves

After you’ve decided the sub-system requirements, you’ll have a good idea about how to organize your team. Go ahead and finalize that at this point, assigning team leads, team members, etc. This is usually easiest to do on a white board during a team meeting.

Once you’ve decided on an organization framework, write up those paragraphs, detailing the individual skill sets required for each team, etc. in the Management Summary section, along with creating a team organization chart (see the guide on how to make a nice one that matches the rest of the document).

Step 4: Sensitivity Study

The purpose of the sensitivity study is to discover how the design parameters relate to the overall mission requirements. It also is important to figure out what is most important for maximizing you score on the various missions. Since you’ve already translated the rules/mission requirements into sub-system requirements, you’re half way there when it comes to the sensitivity study.

This is probably the most confusing part of the proposal for most people. The sensitivity study is NOT simply figuring out how many points you can get for each part of the mission objectives. For example, you don’t want to conclude that if the rules state you get an extra point for each minute of flight, then for each minute of flight you get an extra point. This is obvious. In this case, what you actually want to conclude is something more along the lines of: the weight of the aircraft has a negative linear relationship of slope, y/x, with aircraft endurance; as well as a positive step-wise relationship, z/w, with the points available for payload capacity. By plotting the two against each other, you can find where the maximum amount of points is to be had.

Note that this specific example may not apply or make sense for your mission requirements; the point is that the sensitivity study will likely be a little complicated, and have various inter-related components. You should have coupled design parameters and trade-offs. In other words, the sensitivity study is just a preliminary optimization/trade-study for your design.

You won’t have any details at this point still, but you should know how things relate from basic hand-calculation type equations (like those in the ME 415 course notes). By knowing how things relate, you’ll be able to use the sensitivity study to figure out what aspects of the design need to be maximized/minimized or maybe what compromises need to be made up front to maximize your overall score. This will directly feed into your preliminary design.

The first take-aways from your sensitivity study should be details that will inform your figures of merit in your conceptual design (see the Conceptual Design Page). The sensitivity study will tell you what is most important to prioritize and will help you make some of your configuration decisions.

Step 5: Conceptual Design

After you’ve translated the rules into mission objectives, and completed the sensitivity study, you can start on the conceptual design. What is a conceptual design? It is the design of the concept. What does that mean? It means that you are looking at big picture things like overall configuration, brainstorming good engineering solutions to this year’s specific requriements, etc. All in all, you’re taking the project constraints, and adding in your own constraints, based on sound design principles. At this stage, you should be focusing on decisions that will allow you to complete the ground mission and any specific payload requirements. You don’t need any details, really, at this point, just concepts that you’ve decided on and are able to justify. Now is also the time to write up the paragraphs for the sensitivity study, along with producing any plots/graphs that go along with it in the Conceptual Design section of the proposal.

Step 6: See the End from the Beginning

As it turns out, you don’t need to know anything in order to make a general schedule for the entire year, so that’s already included in the template. You will want to look it over and make sure that the dates are correct and that it matches how you’ve organized your teams. Remember that you need to include major milestones, and not just overarching timelines.

In addition, make sure that you reference this schedule throughout the proposal, especially in the sections on manufacturing flow and test planning. It’s important that the judges see that you’ve got the whole process in mind and how all the pieces fit together.

By looking at the overall schedule up front, before you start really designing any details, you’ll also get a better feel for how the manufacturing flow and testing plan should take shape, such that when you start considering more of the design requirements for this year, you’ll have a framework that those details can plug in to directly.

Step 7: Finish up the Planning Details

Once you have an idea for the general configuration and the like, you should be able to make some decisions on how things are going to be manufactured, including prototypes. This means that you can write the manufacturing flow paragraphs in the Manufacturing Plan section, as well as detailing the critical processes or technologies (foam cutting, 3D printing, etc.) for your builds.

You should also have gotten a good feel for what needs to happen as far as testing goes. Not just for the aerostructural aspects of the airframe, but also any communcation details, extra systems, payload considerations, etc. Now is the time to write the Test Planning section of the proposal.

Step 8: Budget

After you know the preliminary concepts of your aircraft, the manufacturing, and testing, you should have a pretty good feel for what you’re going to need to buy. This includes not only the final aircraft materials/components, but also the things you’ll need for prototyping, testing, crashing, etc. Also included in the budget are logistics for travel, lodging, and food for the team to attend the competition if an in-person competition is taking place. You may also have other expenses; are you getting matching shirts for all the team members?

Also part of the budget sections are details concerning how you plan on acquiring funds. Are you getting them from the Aeronautics Club budget? from the Weidman Center? from previous year’s winnings? or from some other source(s)?

Step 9: Executive Summary

Now that everything else is done, it’s time to summarize. If you did a good job writing the rest of the report, the Executive summary should be very simple; maybe not as simple as copying/pasting the first sentences from each paragraph, but pretty close.

Begin with a strong objective statement, and make sure to cover all of the mission objectives and how you will meet them. Finally, make sure that you have a solid summary for all the sections, not just your favorites.

Step 10: Review

Now you need to review everything you’ve written/created, make edits/revisions, make sure you’re within the page limit and the formatting looks good, etc. Then you should have someone who hasn’t been in the weeds with the rest of the team writing the proposal to review it. This could be a grad student who is involved with the team, or an outsider with good technical writing skills. Either way, get a somewhat outside, peer reviewer to look it over and give you feedback. Then make more edits/revisions. Finally, have the team advisor (the professor who oversees the team) review it and give you feedback. Make your final edits/revision, and be done with it.

Step 11: Submit

Now simply save the file according to the rules (which you read in step 1), with the correct naming scheme, file size/type, etc. And submit it a few days early.

Step 12: Celebrate

Congratulations! You’ve finished a proposal that will probably be accepted. Now you can go on over to another guide and learn what to do next.