In an increasingly competitive field, the UT-Austin Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) team claimed a 15th place finish out of the 39 teams competing at the 2015 Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Student Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Competition, held in Webster Field, Md.

Taking in $1,100 in prize money, the UT team achieved, “the highest flight score that the team has obtained as of yet” according to staff member and team safety pilot, Mark Maughmer, Jr. 

Of the record setting number of teams competing this year, around one third were from highly ranked international institutions. Both the field and level of competition have increased over the six years that Maughmer has traveled with students to the event.

Maughmer said that in the early years of competition, qualifying to compete only required having an airplane that could take off, land and fly manually. The level of competition, he said, has increased very quickly.

“Now, if a team enters an aircraft that performs an autonomous landing and autonomous flight, they are still only half way there.”

The tasks required at more recent competitions include submitting a journal paper outlining the team’s process, presenting a flight readiness review and completing a flight mission. The flight mission, which most teams aim to complete in under thirty minutes, must include autonomous take-off, flight and landing as well as target detection. The targets, each containing a single letter, reference the many potential uses of UAVs. Last year they spelled out “fireman” and this year, “security.” Other, more complicated tasks involving search and rescue simulation and infrared targets to name a few, judges consider bonuses.

While happy with this year’s results, ASE junior and this year’s configuration and integration team lead, Philip Arista, says that he hopes next year’s team will perform better.

“I’m really confident about competing next year,” Arista said. “I’m sure if we work hard, we have a chance of breaking into the top ten or even the top five.”

Arista says that his confidence comes from knowing the team will use the aircraft from this year’s competition instead of constructing a new one. When a shipping incident after last year’s competition effectively destroyed their aircraft, the team had to start over this fall.

Beginning in September, the team of 20 students from various engineering and computer science disciplines collaborated to design, build and test a new aircraft and program the autonomous software. Many of the members devoted up to 10 hours a week on the project in addition to regular coursework. This often meant balancing busy schedules and working around unpredictable Austin weather on flight-testing days.

The new and improved aircraft – Darth Bevo – will be reused in the 2016 competition. The extra work they put in this year will allow them to experiment with different parts and begin flight tests earlier next year.

Success aside, Muaghmer believes the preparation required to compete at the AUVSI/UAV competition provides students with invaluable experience that translates to the classroom and beyond.

“Students learn equations on the board in class to design a wing but it’s not something that really clicks together until they actually apply it,” Maughmer said.

ASE sophomore and UAV project manager, James Bell said that the UAV competition helped him get a sense of what project management would require of him.

“It’s a new experience and it’s an important one to be able to hand off something that you know you can do, to somebody that you’re not sure of,” Bell said. “But that’s why this is a team; people have different and interesting points of view and if given the chance to learn, they can do something just as well, if not better.”

Maughmer also sees how this type of experience will benefit students in their professional lives.

“They’re not going to know this until they graduate and start working for a company but, it has real-world applications. Teamwork is something that they will have to do in this industry.”

As the UT UAV team rises to the challenges of greater competition, members believe the benefits of their experience leave a lasting impact.

“The key is being willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone and try something new,” Bell said.

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