Eye in the sky - Texas style

July 22, 2004

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- They call it the Texas Buzzard. The sleek unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) built by a team of Texas A&M aerospace engineering students has flown to a third-place tie in an international competition for UAVs. The Texas A&M UAV team tied for third place with a team from Santa Clara University in the 2nd Annual Student Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Competition June 25-27 in St. Inigoes, Md. It was Texas A&M's first entry in the competition, which is sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI). The Texas A&M team placed first in the competition's technical paper and oral presentation categories and won the safety award for their operating procedures. First place went to Virginia Commonwealth University. A team from Istanbul Technical University (Turkey) finished second. The third-place finish won the team $2,000 in prize money and plaques for their non-flying wins. Members of the Texas Buzzard team were Joel Hill, a master's degree student in aerospace engineering; Zach Reeder and Kyle Schroeder, seniors in aerospace engineering; and Brian Wood, a master's degree student in aerospace engineering. Dr. Thomas Strganac, associate professor of aerospace engineering, was the team's faculty adviser. David Lund, director of Texas A&M's Aerospace Vehicle Systems Institute, was technical adviser. Each team in the competition had to build an autonomous UAV and fly it on an aerial reconnaissance mission. To fulfill mission requirements, each team's UAV had to take off under manual control, change over to autonomous, or programmed, flight in the air and fly itself under computer control with no input from the team. The "Buzzard" started its life as a radio-controlled sailplane, or glider, originally intended to fly in sailplane competitions. The team added an engine, programmable autopilot and wireless-linked video camera to turn it into an uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) for the AUVSI competition. Some things about the competition surprised the Texas A&M team. "Almost all the other teams were computer science guys, not aerospace," Reeder said. "We look at things entirely differently from they way they do." The UAVs had to navigate a course given to each team the day before the flight, observe and send back images of targets located at several points along the course, return to the starting point and either land by itself or switch back to manual control for the landing. They had to provide images of two kinds of target: a 10- by 10-ft. square painted on the ground and a group of "military vehicles." Images sent back from the UAV had to be detailed enough that stripes painted inside the square could be seen clearly, and the military vehicles had to be identified, their location confirmed by GPS and the directions they were pointed identified. Winning the competition's safety award was especially important to Lund and Strganac. "We put a lot of emphasis on operating the vehicle safely," Lund said. "It's good to have that recognized."

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