Texas A&M and UT students flight competitino
Texas A&M students demonstrate their drone control capabilities under the watchful eye of UT Team RPY members.

It began in the fall 2013 semester, when UT aerospace students enrolled in the capstone Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Design course found a new requirement buried in their project description: "Teams shall demonstrate a capability for their air system to be controlled by a control station design team from a TBD university."

Not until the following spring did the full significance of the innocuous requirement become clear – students from another university would be taking control of the UT camera-equipped drones that students had spent all semester designing, building and testing. Not only that – the students controlling the UT drones would be wearing maroon and white while doing so.

Final demonstrations by the two traditional Texas rivals – UT and A&M – culminated this April. During the demonstrations, students from both universities collaborated to successfully demonstrate that semi-autonomous drones designed and developed by UT students could be flown and operated by A&M student teams.

The idea was hatched two years earlier by UT and A&M professors Armand Chaput and John Valasek to give their students experience with a real-world scenario in which different parts of a single system are being designed and developed across multiple companies – some of which are rivals and competitors. Project success in such situations requires that participants understand and apply the principles of systems engineering, a subject which has been integrated into UT's aerospace capstone design courses for years and is now being integrated into A&M's courses as well.

The A&M students enrolled in Valasek's Unmanned Aircraft Control Station design course are required to design and develop hardware and software for a UAS control station. The control station course has always had significant systems engineering content and Valasek is now leading an A&M effort to integrate the subject into their capstone aircraft design course. Valasek and Chaput have been collaborating on integrating systems engineering into aerospace design education since Chaput visited A&M as a Lockheed Martin Aeronautics industry lecturer over a decade ago.

UT aerospace students Steven Hutzley and Sabrina Luce served as UT liaison leads for the UT/A&M collaboration project. Throughout the semester, they were responsible for communicating with A&M students, who were designing and building a ground station capable of controlling UT student-designed and built drones. UT students also developed their own control station using commercially available software and laptop computers.

"Our planes were designed for compatibility with commercial hardware and software. We had to document the equipment and formats we used so A&M could successfully interface their ground station," said Hutzley.

On April 25 the A&M and UT teams met at the Austin Radio Control Association airfield near Decker Lake to demonstrate their projects. Each of the two A&M teams designed control stations for different UT mission phases. Team SkyAgs worked with the UT team GOFER (Good Old Fashioned Engineering Regime) to demonstrate the search portion of the mission. During the search, the GOFER drone looked for specific targets in an open field using autopilot control and a remotely controlled camera. The A&M Systems Engineering Collective team performed the payload delivery portion of the mission, using the UT team RPY's (Roll, Pitch, Yaw) drone to locate and drop a dummy bomb on the target found in the search phase.

Despite the spirited tension between the Aggies and the Longhorns and the students' endless discussions over which is superior – gig 'em or hook 'em – the A&M students demonstrated capabilities to communicate with and control the UT drones. The search demonstration was successful but did not fully meet all mission requirements. The second demonstration met all requirements by locating the target and dropping the bomb-shaped dummy payload on the correct target.

The flight phase of the UT/A&M demonstration concluded with team discussions on lessons learned. Both teams reported back to the professors on the importance of clear and concise communication and the danger of ambiguity and assumption.

"This project gave us a taste of how engineers interact with each other in the real-world," said Luce. "The collaboration allowed us to simulate two different companies working together long-distance to create products that are compatible."