UAV students working on aircraft
Final tweaks are made to the ground system’s interoperability and image recognition before flight the next day. View more competition photos.

Whether for military, commercial or personal purposes, drones are becoming an important part of today’s technology. They can track hurricanes, monitor wildlife, and even carry out search-and-rescue missions. Each year at UT Austin, students on the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) team in the Aerospace Engineering and Engineering (ASE/EM) department design and build a UAV to develop these increasingly relevant skills and compete in an international competition.

This June, the UT Austin team competed in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Student Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Competition held in Webster Field, Md., placing 15 out of 29 teams and bringing home $1,600 in prize money.

The requirements to make it to the competition were more difficult to fulfill than ever before this year. According to ASE/EM staff member Mark Maughmer II, who has served as the team’s safety pilot in these competitions since 2007, the quality of the aircraft was much better than in previous years because of the higher bar of entry. Fewer teams made it to the competition, and every aircraft was able to take off, which hasn’t always been the case in the past.

“This was the least amount of teams that I remember being there, just because it was hard to qualify,” Maughmer said. “Half the U.S. teams weren’t able to make it.”

Maughmer said that UT’s aircraft flew more reliably this year than it has in the past as well. This was the first year, for example, that Maughmer didn’t have to control the aircraft manually in order to rescue it.

To enter the competition, teams were required to submit a video of the aircraft achieving all of the objectives to be attempted at the competition, a flight log and a technical journal paper.

The competition consisted of two primary objectives – the aircraft was required complete a successful, autonomous flight and correctly identify targets on the ground. One of the secondary objectives was for the aircraft to fly while avoiding both stationary and moving objects in the air, a new aspect of the competition. A few other secondary objectives included autonomous image recognition, payload delivery and cybersecurity.

UAV team with aircraftThe team proudly poses with the plane after a successful autonomous takeoff, flight, landing, and target identification. Pictured from left to right: Mark Maughmer, Bradley Bridges, James Bell, Blake Younger, Israel Hernandez, Wes Adams, Vatsa Gandhi.

Vasta Gandhi, an aerospace engineering junior and the team’s image recognition lead, said this opportunity taught him a comparable amount to his classes.

“It’s more hands-on work, rather than just taking in information,” Gandhi said. “We’re actually applying the knowledge that we’re given, so it helps in the industry.”

Though the team used the same aircraft from last year, they also included new features, such as a new high definition camera, image recognition code and obstacle avoidance code.

The aircraft were judged by a panel of industry professionals, who evaluated them based on industry standards and provided feedback. Some of the feedback for the Texas team included the need for better safety checklists and a higher quality video feed.

“The feedback we got was excellent,” said Blake Younger, an aerospace engineering senior and the team’s project manager. “It was very in-depth, and we’re going to use that feedback to improve our performance at next year’s competition.”

The interdisciplinary team consists of 15 undergraduate aerospace, electrical engineering and computer science students who have been putting in at least 10 hours of work per week in addition to their regular coursework since September. A month before the competition, they dedicated up to 20 hours per week to wrap up their projects and perform frequent flight tests.

Younger said he enjoys being a part of the UAV team because everyone on the team is there to do work they feel is important, and are not just working for a grade. He said that participating in this team has benefited him by expanding his education, in addition to boosting his resume and learning what project management requires.

“Employers really like people who have extracurricular activities, especially when it applies to the industry,” Younger said. “I think it’s one of the best ways to learn skills from the industry outside of school.”

To learn more about student projects and/or to support our student teams, please contact Bliss Angerman at 512-232-7085 or bliss.angerman@austin.utexas.edu