South Dakota Tech News
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
July 26, 2004
Contact: Steve Buchholz, Public Information Manager, 394-6082
Tech Team Achieves Autonomous Flight In UAV Competition
In its first year in what may be the most complex engineering and science competition for college students, South Dakota Tech applied determination and moxie to overcome a potentially devastating setback.
In the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle competition at Fort Benning, Ga., last week, Tech’s helicopter crashed in practice when the machine’s clutch gave out. The team spent the next 10 hours designing a fix and repairing the helicopter before the next morning’s scheduled competition flight. The team put the finishing touches on the repair minutes before their time would have run out. When the students lifted the helicopter off the ground, they flipped it to autonomous control, and held their collective breath.
“It hovered beautifully,” team advisor Dr. Dan Dolan said. “They sent it commands and it followed them perfectly. You can’t imagine the feeling. It was the most exciting thing I’ve seen in years.”
Team member Jeremy Banik agreed.
“Watching our helicopter fly autonomously after crashing only 24 hours earlier was an incredibly fulfilling experience,” the mechanical engineering major from Sioux Falls said. “It was truly one of the greatest moments of my life.”
The recovery from the crash was just the most exciting development of the competition, Dolan said. Judges and other teams didn’t expect much from Tech in its first year, but the team received accolades from the judges during the event banquet for two reasons – the team’s recovery and because Tech placed in second during the static events.
”I wasn’t surprised by how well we did, but other people sure were,” Dolan said.
The competition, sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, challenges students to launch an aerial vehicle, navigate a series of global positioning system waypoints and fly three kilometers to a complex of buildings. There, the vehicle must search the front of each building for a specified symbol. Then, the vehicle must launch a second vehicle that enters the building, captures video or photos of some a specified type of data and transmits that data back the starting point. That difficulty enters because the entire operation must be fully automated. In other words, once the main vehicle is launched, the team members sit back and watch while their creations do their work.
The Tech team purchased an off-the-shelf, remote-controlled helicopter that served as the primary vehicle, and a four-rotor vehicle called the Draganflyer as the secondary vehicle. Team members successfully modified the helicopter to fly autonomously and are currently working to do the same with the Draganflyer.
Since the inception of the competition, no team has ever accomplished the entire mission. This year, only one team successfully navigated the waypoints and only one team even attempted to search the building complex. That demonstrates the difficulty and complexity of the challenge, Dolan said.
Tech’s participation was funded, in part, by the Army Research Laboratory, which has an interest in developing UAV technology. Researchers in atmospheric sciences also see a need for better UAV technology that would help them gather data.
“This project involves a number of important areas of technology – computer vision, sensors, autonomous flight control and materials,” Dolan said. “The ultimate benefit will be to the researchers and military units in dangerous environments or environments too complex to send manned aerial vehicles into. These machines also could be used by researchers who study the environment, and by police when full-sized helicopters could not be used for observations. They also could be used by the military to seek out enemy personnel and equipment such as roadside bombs.”
The research also holds potential for technology transfer and economic development, Dolan said.
“Results of the research should transfer first to companies building military support equipment,” he said. “Surveillance is important in many areas in today's world, and this research could lead to advanced surveillance equipment for police and private use.”
Before that happens, Tech students will use what they learned this year to begin preparing for the 2005 competition.
“We learned a lot from this helicopter, and we have incredible momentum,” Dolan said. “We’re looking forward to an even better event next year.”
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