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Robotic aircraft competition flies on technology's edge

Robotic aircraft competition flies on technology's edge

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Published by: api-3712130 on Oct 16, 2008
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Robotic aircraft competition flies on
technology's edge
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(AP) -- As soldiers fired bursts from M-16 rifles at an urban warfare training site, a group
of college students gathered on the edge of a small runway nearby to demonstrate the
latest advances in aerial robotics, an emerging technology that could save lives in combat
or natural disasters.

Some of the diminutive aircraft resembled the single-engine model planes flown by
hobbyists on weekends, but they were packed withcomputer gadgetry, video cameras and
satellite guidance systems. Others were miniature helicopters. And some were totally out
of the box, such as a yellow, four-propeller craft resembling a hovercraft -- a creation of
students at the College of Engineering in Delhi, India.

All of them were programmed to accomplish their tasks on their own, without any
remote-control manipulation by human controllers. They differ from other unmanned
aircraft, such as the Predator and Global Hawk, which must be guided by people.

Sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International of Arlington,
Virginia, the competition attracts college students from around the world who design and
build the planes flown during the annual three-day competition at Fort Benning. The
association also sponsors robotics contests for underwater and ground vehicles.

Organizers and team members said the technology could be used by the military to check areas that would be too dangerous for soldiers, to assess wildfires, to check for biological or chemical contamination and to locate victims of natural disasters.

Someday they may even be small enough to carry in police cars, giving officers a tool to
check inside buildings during hostage situations, said organizer Robert Michaelson, a
retired Georgia Institute of Technology engineering professor.

Teams have won about $400,000 (euro314,045) in prize money during the 16 years of the competition. This year, $60,000 (euro47,105) in prize money awaited the winners among the seven teams that planned to fly. Four other teams attended, but did not compete.

Ken Thurman, one of the judges from Front Royal, Virginia, said the competition attracts some of the world's brightest students who spend countless hours advancing the field of aerial robotics.

"They don't know that what they're doing is supposed to be impossible. They just do it," said Thurman, a retired Air Force electronics warfare officer. "If we had industry do this, they would spend millions."

Michaelson said this year's goal was for the planes to locate a village 2 kilometers (1.25
miles) away and find a particular building there. Then the planes were supposed to fly
inside -- or dispatch a smaller "sub-vehicle" -- to take pictures of the interior and relay the
images 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) back to observers.

"It allows you to get information that might be hazardous for humans to do," Michaelson
said. "They're trying to go a long distance and enter a building without any human
intervention. These students are programming these machines to think like a human.

"The mission is complex," he said, adding that he didn't expect any of the teams to fulfill
all the mission requirements this year. "They are literally advancing the state of the art."
Of course there were glitches and crashes, some because of the complex technology and

some just bad luck.
But the students took the setbacks in stride.
The Indian team's aircraft, with four propellers powered by electric motors, was damaged

in shipment. They spent 48 hours repairing it. Despite their efforts, they couldn't get it to
fly Thursday and eventually carried it from the field.

The University of Central Florida in Orlando brought a futuristic looking four-propeller robot made from aluminum tubing. To control an unexpected vibration in their craft -- equipped with a satellite navigation system, gyroscopic stabilizers anddigital signal

processors -- they resorted to old-fashioned fix: black electrical tape.
"This is definitely challenging," said Gary Stein, a computer engineering student. "There
issoftware, mechanical systems and circuit boards."

The team from the University of Alabama at Huntsville, Alabama, brought a 20 pound (9
kilogram) helicopter, designed to launch a smaller aircraft for surveillance missions
inside buildings.

The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota, also brought a small helicopter with a largevideo camera in the nose for taking surveillance photos. It crashed Wednesday and the team stayed up all night making repairs.

"We had an engine failure," said team member Simon Haumont, 26, a recent graduate
with degrees in computer engineering and mechanical engineering.
Michaelson said the competition is important because it gives the students a dose of "real
world engineering," where situations don't always follow textbook examples.

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