Course allows students to design, test UAVS

June 20, 2013, 8:53 p.m.

The skies above Lake Lagunita buzzed with unmanned aircraft earlier this month as graduate students in AA241X: Design, Construction and Testing of Autonomous Aircraft maneuvered self-designed vehicles in the course’s final project of simulated rescue missions.

The project, which served as the culmination of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ three-course sequence on aircraft design and analysis, called on students to work in teams throughout spring quarter to design unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that pursued a specific mission set. The five teams in this year’s class were tasked with creating a UAV that could find three people stranded in Lake Lagunita at separate and unknown locations.

“We designed a search-and-rescue mission for teams to complete, and they competed on two criteria — their sighting time, and how accurately they reported the location of the stranded people,” said Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Juan Alonso, the sequence’s instructor. “It’s a good way of giving students a real-world job.”

According to Alonso, student designs have become significantly more sophisticated since the class was created ten years ago, as the vehicles now have full inertial navigation.

“The five student teams have exceeded my wildest expectations,” he said. “They were all able to find [the] three targets in Lake Lagunita in less than two to three minutes and then they could tell us where the targets were with better than three meter accuracy.”

The course drew students from the mechanical engineering, computer science and electrical engineering departments, in addition to the aeronautics and astronautics department. Alonso said that he hopes the course attracts students from a wider range of departments in the future.

“The biggest value of this course is that you have a group of eight people working together. It simulates a real-world engineering experience,” he said. “From a pedagogical standpoint, you can do a lot of simulation with a fixed-wing aircraft, similar to what happens in industry.”

According to Alonso, the potential civilian applications for UAVs are “endless.” The class shows students how autonomous aircraft can be used in non-military activities such as crop monitoring, on-demand imaging, forest fire detection and control and search and rescue missions.

Course teaching assistant Roberto Bunge M.S. ’11 Ph.D. ’14 agreed that the course is unique in its practical focus, allowing students to apply what they have learned in other classes.

“[In earlier classes], you learn theoretical tools, and you learn about how discrepancies can occur from the model you are using for your simulation,” he said. “You learn what other approximations need to be done in order to do a good simulation, and you also learn that even a good simulation cannot always replicate a real environment.”

Bunge said that each student team went through a process involving analysis, design, UAV construction and testing, which combined could take multiple years in industry. According to Bunge, almost all designs adopted a familiar tube-and-wing aircraft shape, though the similarities ended there.

“Every team was trying to accomplish the exact same task as quickly, accurately and efficiently as possible,” he said. “They all came up with different approaches and solutions to the problem. That is the beauty of such aircraft system designs…There are multiple options that can perform very well.”

Beyond the AA241 sequence, Bunge and others have pursued additional experience in UAV design through the Stanford Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Enthusiasts (SUAVE), a group that was formed this winter to provide students with more opportunities to learn about autonomous flight and aircraft design.

“[SUAVE] has the mission of enabling students to learn, develop, and innovate with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, [including] quadrotors, fixed-wing [aircraft], airships and helicopters,” Bunge said, adding that the group has created a “common space where we can come together and share expertise and passion for hands-on projects with UAVs.”

Nitish Kulkarni '16 is a senior majoring in Mechanical Engineering. He writes about technology and breaking news, and runs online content sections. Email him at nitishk2 'at'

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