A group of Bourns College of Engineering students at the University of California, Riverside have solved the problem of how to herd cats: You give them space and a little money to create their own unmanned aerial vehicle, and then you basically leave them alone.
What they create is awesome—a competition-worthy unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, for a contest on June 18 in Maryland where 17 of the 40 teams have already dropped out—but what they learn—about fundraising, budgeting and real-world collaboration—is better than any classroom exercise, said the object detection team leader Andrew Olguin, a third-year electrical engineering student at UC Riverside.
“It shows us that undergraduates are capable of doing something the industry does all the time, and we can do it all ourselves, without any heavy-handed influence from professors or a course plan,” Olguin said. “It’s just us, coming together, and figuring things out like a real engineering project.”
Which is not to say they didn’t have a little guidance, since they were mentored by engineering professors Wei Ren and Matthew Barth, along with advisor Jun Wang, director of student development and international initiatives at Bourns College of Engineering. But this isn’t a class or special curriculum.
The 24 members of the Unmanned Aerial Systems team have created a unmanned aerial vehicle from scratch in their spare time, which for this lot probably means time when most of us would be sleeping, since these undergraduates are carrying a full load of engineering classes, working jobs to support themselves, doing the inevitable mounds of homework and staying active in student organizations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
In fact, it was members of ASME who went searching for a project in early 2013 that would give them the opportunity to do something challenging with their budding engineering skills.
“We could have just done a project that’s purely mechanical, like creating a human-powered vehicle, but we wanted to step it up a notch,” said Daniel Robles, a second year mechanical engineering student who is coordinating the unmanned aerial vehicle’s mechanical engineering. “We wanted a project that required us to collaborate with others—computer engineers, electrical engineers—because that’s what the industry does.”
What they chose was the Association for Unmanned Aerial Systems International’s annual student competition to build an unmanned flying machine that can think. They call it an unmanned aerial vehicle instead of a drone because most people equate drones as military uses, a connotation they prefer to avoid. They want to create a vehicle that can be used for non-military activities, such as search and rescue, monitoring irrigation on agricultural fields or even package deliveries.
And don’t let the looks of this unmanned aerial vehicle fool you. These aren’t radio-controlled airplanes, where someone stands on the ground and controls the way flies. These are flying machines that take off, land and fly on commands from a computer, and send back information that can help the team find a series of targets emblazoned with letters that, once assembled, create a message.
UC Riverside’s unmanned aerial vehicle will take photos every three seconds, and the computer must go through every photo looking for shapes, colors, GPS locations, orientation, letters and numbers to identify potential targets. Once the computer finds photos it thinks meet the parameters, it shows them to the team members, who try to put the message together.
Once they found their project, the mechanical engineers quickly went looking for help, signing on students with electrical engineering and computer skills. The stakes were high—nearly half of the teams who enter the contest drop out before the competition because they aren’t successful in creating an unmanned aerial vehicle. This is UC Riverside’s first time to send a team to the competition, and this team wasn’t about to fail.
Over time, 24 engineering students got involved in the project, each working on some component. UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering and its Center for Environmental Research & Technology (CE-CERT) provided $2,000 in seed money with space in Winston Chung Hall for them to start building their UAV and attend the competition. Overall, the team raised more than $15,000 for the project, including funding from Ren’s Cooperative Vehicle Networks (COVEN) lab grant, Northrup Grumman and UTC Aerospace Systems.
“It got to where we were going to job fairs not to talk about jobs but to give people our proposals so we could ask for money,” said Russell Perry, an electrical engineering student and incoming president of the IEEE campus organization.
Designing the unmanned aerial vehicle, and putting all the components together turned out to be one of the biggest lessons in collaboration. “We got into arguments about how things should be mounted or designed, so we had to come to some design decisions,” Perry said.
“It wasn’t all rainbows and candy,” said Mike Smick, a third-year engineering student and president of the ASME campus group. “There was some butting of heads, but we dealt with it. We just talked it out and gave everybody a chance to explain each side. You have to have a clear head about it. You can’t just argue and have your own way. You have to have an open mind.”
Their unmanned aerial vehicle is bigger than anyone expected—6 feet long with an 8-foot wing span, but it weighs just 18 pounds, a balsa wood skeleton reinforced with plywood and Fiberglas, and covered with a kind of iron-on shrink wrap. That’s where they put the unmanned aerial vehicle’s colors of blue and gold (UC Riverside’s school colors) and the logos of all their sponsors. The unmanned aerial vehicle carries a digital SLR camera, a wifi antenna and three long lithium-ion polymer batteries that provide most the weight.
And it wasn’t just enough to build an unmanned aerial vehicle; the team realized they had to learn how to fly, so they could make sure they had a workable design. And you can’t just test drive an unmanned aerial vehicle anywhere—the Federal Aviation Administration has regulations against that. So they began working with the Riverside Radio Control Club, which has a field for flying radio-controlled planes in Perris. There they got help from safety pilot Jim Bronowski, who is teaching them how to fly their unmanned aerial vehicle without crashing it.
They’ve already had one big crash that required a complete rebuild of the unmanned aerial vehicle. But that was a good thing, the team members say, because it allowed them to improve their original design.
Now they’re getting ready to pack up unmanned aerial vehicle 2 for The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International 12th Annual Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition in Maryland on June 18, but they’ve already started thinking about how they want to design next year’s unmanned aerial vehicle, and the additional team members they need to bring on board.
“We’d like to expand to bring on a business manager, a fundraiser and a graphic designer,” said Brian Ho, a third-year electrical engineering student who oversaw the design of the unmanned aerial vehicle’s communication system.
The nine team members attending this year are Robles, Perry, Olguin, Ho, Smick, as well as mechanical engineering students Joshua Hauser and Michael Han and electrical engineering students Kevin Yang and Brandon Lu.
And what’s the prize? Robles seems stunned by the question. “Um, I think there’s a monetary prize,” he said. “I don’t really know. I’ll have to check. Really, what we care about is the prestige. To win this would be a very big deal.”