Texas Aerial Robotics team members at competition photo

TAR members run diagnostics on their drone during the IARC. While it is too late to make any significant adjustments, running system checks ensures that the drone is fully operational and ready to compete.

This summer the Texas Aerial Robotics (TAR) team, a UT Austin student-run organization in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, brought home second place in the American venue after participating in their second annual International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC) held in Atlanta.

Since 1991, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Foundation's IARC has pushed university students from across the globe to pioneer new ways to obtain autonomous flight and complete previously unachievable tasks.

Funded by both individual and corporate donors, TAR was officially formed in 2017 and has quickly risen to become a top competitor in the IARC.

Out of 59 other experienced teams, only 11 made it past qualifications and into the competition. Four other teams competed alongside TAR in the American venue in Atlanta, and six others competed at the Pacific venue in Beijing.

The IARC involves only one mission per year, according to Eric Johnson, an aerospace engineering senior and the current vice president of TAR, and the prize money increases every year that the crown goes unclaimed.

This year TAR competed in the IARC’s “Mission 7,” which involved herding several autonomous robotic vacuum cleaners with a completely autonomous drone. The team had to complete their task in an environment that denied both GPS and simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM,) meaning that navigation was exponentially more difficult.

“We’re still a young team so we’re super satisfied with being second place,” said Johnson. “We’re going to build off the capabilities that we’ve been building on the last couple of years, and because we haven’t competed in any other missions before 2017 we didn’t have a lot of the prerequisite capabilities.”

Dedicating all their time and commitment to IARC is one of the big reasons they’ve risen to the top so quickly, said Johnson.

“One thing that really makes our team super effective is that we’re a big team and we focus on one problem,” he said.

A big part of preparing for the IARC is testing. Johnson says that TAR members take extreme precautions while testing the drone, which is one of many things that has contributed to their success.

“We test them in our 3D simulator,” said Johnson, “which is something we set up throughout the year.”

The simulation, which is designed through an open source 3D physics simulator, simulates the drone’s programming in an environment like that of Mission 7, which enables the team to see how well the drone will operate during the IARC. Tests like these help the team learn what works and doesn’t.

“Last year we were still building a drone and figuring out how the stability system works and this year we figured out how the navigation and AI systems work,” said Johnson. “Now that we have that baseline we can make a much more complex system and I think that’s really where we’re going to shine next year—when we started last year we had super basic autonomous flight. We were playing catchup, and now we’re one of the leaders.”

According to Johnson, TAR is also great way to get acquainted with potential future employers through fundraising efforts, as well as applying the knowledge they’ve learned in class toward real-world engineering problems.

Our hands-on student projects like Texas Aerial Robotics rely on external funding. To learn how to support our student teams, contact Bliss Angerman at 512-232-7085 or bliss.angerman@austin.utexas.edu