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It is all about fighting off terrorism and searching areas man can’t get into. Oh yeah, it is also about winning a competition.
In less than two years, an unmanned aircraft search and rescue competition will take place in a remote area in Australia.
And Kevin Kochersberger, director of the Unmanned System Lab (USL) at Virginia Tech, is getting ready now as he hopes to take a student design team and win the $50,000 prize money.
Kochersberger first USL team won second place in the 2008 outdoor aerial robotic competition and they came home with $17,000 in prize money, partially because no team among the 40 entrants won the first prize.
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle System International altered the competition the next year to an indoor event. The entrants must fly their autonomous unmanned vehicle, a quad-rotor vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, safely into and through a building. Each year, the students are building upon the previous teams’ research.
In 2012, the sixth international competition will work under the following real-life scenario: Credible information from an intelligence agency indicates highly sensitive information detailing plans to sabotage the control of the Eurasian banking system is contained on an unsecured USB flash drive kept in a remote and highly secured office. The mission of the autonomous vehicle is to remove the flash drive by entering through an upper-story broken window. Added to the complicated task, the vehicle must be able to read Arabic, and then decide how to proceed once inside the building.
Alex Marshall, of Charlottesville, Va., a graduate of mechanical engineering, was the mechanical sub-team leader in 2010, and it was his responsibility to work on a pick-up mechanism for the most recent version of the design. “It’s really cool to be building something from scratch. Last year’s model was badly damaged when it was shipped to the competition, and wires went everywhere. They had used a sonar-like device to locate the walls when the machine was flying. This year we are using a laser range finder.”
The change in the sensing mechanism is making the new aircraft much bigger and bulkier, and the hardware is more expensive, Marshall said. The real trick is the rules of the competition demand the design be below a maximum weight limit of 1500 grams.
Marshall spent much of his time developing the pick-up device that would snatch a USB flash drive randomly placed inside the building, and replace it with a decoy.
Other groups on the team are navigational and vision experts. The navigation team creates a stable and intelligent vehicle flight. Requirements for the vehicle’s vision in this competition are the ability to recognize a security sign and its indicated direction, identify the flash drive and its position as related to the vehicle, understand if an LED light and a laser grid shut off button is on or off, and be able to communicate to the controller, who does not have visual contact.
“I have learned how the different sub-teams working on different aspects of this project must be able to mesh their ideas together,” Marshall said. The entire team meets twice a week, but we spend about 10 to 12 hours a week, sometimes more, on this project. We give updates to Dr. K, and he helps us define our short term goals.”
Marshall said there are often disagreements, but the students have to work toward a final design that is palatable to all of the sub-teams. “It is essential that we remain in touch with each other so the final design comes together nicely and works,” he grinned.
He cited as an example one requirement that demands the quad-rotor to have 240 degrees of unobstructed viewing power. His participation in the mechanical team makes him responsible for this criterion, but he also must ensure his colleagues on the vision and navigational teams do not include components that will eventually obstruct this view.
Click here to learn more about unmanned systems research at Virginia Tech.

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