We Can Design Anything

It’s been a couple of weeks since we won the Red Bull Canada Flugtag competition and we’ve been getting a lot of questions about how it all came to be. So we talked to the brains behind the operation to get the inside scoop.

Red Bull Flying Machine Team: Thai Nguyen, Steve McPhee, Marco Li, Mina Wang, Joyce Chen, Emily Rose, Jacqueline Lee, Tim MacKay, Michael Connelly

What made you enter the competition?

We saw Instagram ads for Red Bull Flugtag and watched clips from past events on YouTube and thought that it looked fun. We also thought it would be a great team-building opportunity that would allow us to showcase our diverse skillset as a company. We leveraged different team members for industrial, mechanical, hardware, and visual design to create the machine. Our company culture is all about innovation and collaboration, so this was the perfect challenge for us.

Thai – VP of Product Design

What inspired the design?

The original illustration that was submitted to Red Bull was an aircraft that consisted of a pea pod-shaped body holding green pea balloons that escaped as the aircraft dropped. There were four wings that looked like two snap peas opening. There were also decorative elements such as a snap pea flower propeller and a vine-inspired plane tail. After the design was accepted, we had many brainstorming sessions and translated the sketch into mechanical components that would be feasible for manufacturing and construction. This was then built in SolidWorks and PTC Creo to be constructed. A few other things to note about the design:

  • Airfoils were used to create the front two snap pea wings.
  • Commercial feather flags were modified and used as the back two snap pea wings.
  • The base platform consisted of large wheels attached to a long axle where the team could push the aircraft.
  • The pilot’s platform was a modified box filled with pea-looking balloons.
  • The snap pea flower-shaped propeller was simplified to a paper pinwheel.
  • The twig-shaped tail attachment was simplified to streamers and an attached paper twig.

Joyce – Mechanical Designer

© Joyce Chen

How did you bring it to life?

Our goal was to build something lightweight and structurally sound, ideally a craft that could make a Transatlantic flight or win Flugtag 2022, whichever came first. The challenge was to build it with things available at our local Home Depot (shoutout to Red Bull for the gift card). We had to balance stability and safety with material weight and cost. In the end, we decided that not being disqualified for being too heavy was the main priority – ensuring that Captain Steve McPhee was not maimed or injured during the flight was also discussed. From there we perused the store aisles for flanges, fixtures, tape, glue, screws, and whatever else would help in bringing the craft to life. Our secret weapon was the ability to leverage our local partners to help CNC the wing components. This allowed us to focus on and enjoy the design and execution of building such a ridiculous thing.

Tim – Senior Industrial Designer

When it dawned on us that we needed to replicate the ambitious design that we submitted to Red Bull, we quickly realized that it would be a delicate balance of aesthetics and… actually making it fly. We wanted to preserve the essence of our design, the recognizable pea pod shape, and the “peas in the pod” concept. For this reason, we decided to wrap the wing foils with clear plastic vinyl sheets and stuff them with green balloons (peas). To minimize the weight during flight, we had two options: reduce the craft’s weight or put our pilot on a juice-cleanse diet. Since the latter option would’ve been met with some resistance, we decided to focus on decreasing the weight of the craft itself. The airfoil shapes were made using foam and held by hollow ABS pipes on each side. With this, we were able to make each wing weigh less than 30lbs. For a finishing touch, we used green pipe cleaners as pea vines at the tail of the craft to bring the entire pea pod to life. Many sleepless nights were spent thinking about the progress of the design and safety of our pilot, but in the end, it was the spirit of the snap pea which guided us, and off we went with our #peasfromthesky craft.

Mina – Mechanical Product Designer

What challenges did you have while building it?

When it comes to building, we specialize in IoT products, not 20 ft. long aircrafts. But we knew if anybody could do it, we could.

The flying machine had to come together in just 2 weeks. After getting all the materials, we came across our first challenge: our office was equipped with 3D printers, not miter saws. Thankfully, other members of our team came forward with drills, batteries, and a variety of tools to get the job done, along with a shop vac to clean up the mess.

At times we had to get creative and make our own tools (i.e. for painting, clamping, and sanding). Whatever we could find in our workshop went into the plane – from stickers and balloons to the spirit of friendship. It was our SnapPea bond that carried us through when problems arose. Even when our plane was deflecting 12+ inches and couldn’t lift a single wing off the ground, we put our snap pea heads together and pulled through. Till the very end, when we made our plummet into Lake Ontario, our SnapPea Flying Machine stayed intact. We like to say we can design anything, and it’s neat that we can now include flying machines in that list!

Marco – Mechanical Designer

© Dan Mathieu

Okay, but what about the performance?

For the costume, we went literal – we would be snap peas flying a snap pea. The song selection was a little more challenging. I started by searching for pea, vegetable, or food-themed music. I found a couple of classics, a song about vegetables by the Beach Boys, and one even called Snap Pea. Neither of these tunes fit the energy or mood we wanted to convey. We needed an upbeat dance song with a simple chorus and a good beat, maybe something a bit cheesy and definitely about food.


I found a song that checked all of the boxes. Yummy Fruits and Vegetables by D Billions helped to lead SnapPea to a Yummy Yummy victory!

Mike – Sales Support Specialist

How did you come up with the dance?

I thought the snap pea costumes and the song choice were hilarious – like something straight from a kid’s TV show. I wanted to lean into that and create something simple and fun that would get the audience laughing. Despite having over a decade of previous dance experience, I knew this would be the most important performance of my life. Serious preparation would be required to create a routine that would do the SnapPea Flying Machine justice. Although I came prepared with choreography to teach my fellow snap peas, the process was extremely collaborative. The best parts of the performance came from ideas we bounced off each other, getting sillier and more creative each time. When the day of the big performance finally came, we were prepared; we had practiced, put in the hours, and subjected ourselves to weeks of brutal and intense method acting to access the very essence of SnapPea. At last, the music began to play, and we were no longer dancers performing for the enjoyment of Toronto. We were snap peas.

Jacqueline – Program Manager

© Dan Mathieu

What was it like to fly this thing?

After weeks of building, and days rehearsing our dance, the moment was suddenly upon us. Thrust onto the launch pad by Red Bull staff, our team was now alone with thousands of fans looking up at us. We scanned the crowd in awe and were deafened by the cheering and chanting, and then we heard it: “yummy yummy yummy yummy”. We assumed our positions and danced as we’d never danced before. It felt like muscle memory since Jacqueline had drilled the routine into our snap pea heads.

The music stopped. I awkwardly boarded the craft, and the team began pushing it down the runway. Faster and faster we gained speed and my only thought was: “please cart, don’t wobble”. The team kept it dead-straight and gathered tons of speed. A feeling of “we’re really doing it!” washed over me and a smile filled my face. Then the runway ended.

The craft took to the air and for a brief moment, it felt like time stood still. I could feel the wind across the airfoils. I felt like I could control the pitch of the craft, and in a small way, my own destiny. That feeling immediately went away when I crashed into the ice-cold water.

The anticipation of the event, the camaraderie of the build, the flight itself, and the rush of the cold water all culminated in a feeling of euphoria.

Would do again.

Steve McPhee – Senior Product Designer

© Dan Mathieu

Thank you Red Bull for organizing an incredible event and an unforgettable experience!

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