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Summer research stories: UC performs well at unmanned vehicle competition

How had this happened?

The University of Cincinnati Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Team stood on a massive runway at a naval station in Maryland and got some unexpected news.

That morning, they woke up expecting to fly third in the Student Unmanned Aerial Systems competition, a timed contest mimicking a real-world search and rescue mission that draws teams from across the globe. It was UC’s first time flying. 

But no. A few things had changed, and UC was up—first.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” says Team Captain Austin Wessels, sitting with his team on a recent summer morning, recounting the day. “We had no idea what other people were capable of or where we stood amongst the crowd,” says Nick Little, hardware lead for the team. “But as soon as we took off, all the teams still in the pits started clapping—everyone wants to see everyone fly. It was a pretty incredible experience.”

UC sent the team out of its UAV MASTER Labs (officially the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Multi-Agent Systems Technology Research Lab). It was a senior capstone project this year.

Wessels led a team advised by lab co-director Kelly Cohen and research associates Bryan Brown, Justin Ouwerkerk and Anthony Lamping. Brown accompanied them to the competition. 

Other team members included software lead Nick DeGroote, hardware lead Nick Little, Evan Barnes, David Krok, David Wehner, Jason Roll and Simon Livingston—all undergraduates in engineering or design. Cohen, also interim head of UC’s Department of Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics, supported the project, which cost $15,000 and was funded by NASA and the Ohio Space Grant Consortium; UC’s aerospace engineering, electrical engineering and computer science departments as well as the College of Engineering and Applied Science undergrad office. 

The team did UC proud, Cohen says. They came in fourth place and outscored teams from the University of Texas at Austin, Rutgers, Harvard, Virginia Tech, Purdue and many more. 

It was quite a challenge, says Wessels, who graduated this spring from UC’s aerospace engineering program. The competition required a design report, a flight readiness video and an autonomous flight that demanded a wide range of tasks.

“This mission simulates flying the path to an area of interest, searching the area to locate trapped or injured personnel, dropping emergency supplies in a clearing, then driving the emergency supplies to the location of the person,” the challenge reads. “The mission shall be accomplished in less than 30 minutes of flight time to simulate the time constraint in a real search and rescue scenario.”

To do this, UC had to engineer a complex system that communicated with both an aerial craft and a ground car. It required tons of decisions related to building or choosing between different types of technology and design principles. Should the craft be fixed wing or multirotor airframe? What sort of ground control system is best? What sort of imaging system? What should power the thing? And on and on. The contest required the team to protect the craft against cyber-attack and follow all sort of guidelines on weights and dimensions.

The competition is held by the Seafarer Chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit “devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community.” 

We know UC did quite well, but how was the flight?

The guys were a little disappointed over a radio glitch that made it unable to complete the mission but Hefty, their aircraft, really did well. 

They hope to work out some kinks and bring a bigger model, HEAV, to the competition next year. All and all, it was “really cool to see all of our hard work for the year pay off,” DeGroote says.

Wessels says they learned a lot in the process, from one another and the other teams. He sees the benefit in meeting and networking with people of similar interests and career tracks, particularly since he wants to continue doing flight test engineering after he’s done with academics. 

First, though, he’ll be back at the lab. This time as a full-time research associate. 

“That’s the goal,” he says, “to be back, and do better, next year. Proving to ourselves and other people that we know what we’re doing.”