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UAV takes flight in Sun Devils' hands

March 24, 2010

Students in the College of Technology and Innovation at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus are building more than toys for their capstone projects.

A team of eight aeronautics engineering students won second place overall in the undergraduate division at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics regional student competition in Tucson for designing a video-capable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Their work competed in a field of 14 entries submitted by teams from universities in Arizona, Utah and California, including projects on liquid rocket engines, aero-thermodynamic analysis, propeller design and a mission to Phoebe.

The team designed and built the UAV with both autopilot and remote control capability. It launches under manual remote control, but once in the air can autonomously follow a route between several waypoints before returning for a landing. Applications for the aircraft could include security, search operations, and land and environmental surveying by private and public entities.   

“We received very positive feedback from all the judges and other student attendees at the conference,” says Juan Rios, the project manager and autopilot team lead. “We’re all very proud of what we have accomplished and the recognition we have received.”

The next step, Rios says, is to troubleshoot and fine-tune the aircraft’s performance and autopilot capacity to ensure consistent and stable flight. The students also plan to implement several different flight plans before preparing a full technical report on the design.

“With these projects, students are using technology, a little imagination, and off the shelf hardware to design and build a small UAV,” says Changho Nam, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Technology.  “Through the UAV capstone projects, students acquire the experience of working as part of a team to solve a challenging, practical design and build problem within a limited budget. They have gone through all the steps of designing and building a prototype aircraft, including design, analysis, fabrication and test flights.”

The project builds on similar work done by a student team during the 2008-09 academic year, adds Nam, the team’s faculty advisor.

Airframe design team lead Jeremiah Gayle says the UAV, which has a wingspan of 4.5 feet and weighs about 4 pounds, embarked on its maiden flight on March 11.

“We had to use a larger design than last year’s team in order to support the integrated video system and a heavier battery,” says Gayle, who estimated that the UAV’s battery could support up to half an hour in the air.

The aircraft broadcasts a live video feed from the onboard camera and transmits the video to a ground-control computer system where it can be recorded.  

The team considered 15 designs, digitally modeled the top five and tested them for optimal lift and stability before the final design was chosen.  Their final product is modular, with wings that can be easily detached from the fuselage. Substituting different wing sets can alter the vehicle’s capabilities to suit a variety of functions.

Comparable commercial video-capable aerial systems can sell for around $10,000, Gayle says. Construction costs for the students’ UAV came to approximately $2,000.

Gayle, along with teammates Brad Golding, Thomas Gonzales, Kamerine Kroner, Kevin Languell, Gabe McDaniel, Jake McKown and Juan Rios, constructed the UAV using remaining materials from last year’s UAV project, sponsored by Kutta Technologies. About $800 in supplemental funding was provided through the Department of Engineering Technology.

The project has not been without its setbacks, though. Interference between the streaming video and the remote piloting signal initially caused the team to lose control of the UAV in flight and a new transmitter had to be installed.

“Computer science is involved in programming the autopilot and troubleshooting after test flights,” says Rios. “We didn’t have much initial programming experience, so we learned on the go.”

Despite difficulties, the project has proven inspirational.

“Personally, since getting involved with this project, I’ve become much more interested in UAVs,” Rios says. “This has become something that I’d like to pursue in the future as a career.”

 “It’s great to watch something you designed go from a computer model to something you can hold in your hands,” Gayle says.