Senior Aircraft Design Team Makes History with Fully Autonomous Mission

December 15, 2020

group photo of senior aircraft design team members with airplane
This team of aerospace engineering seniors made history this year by becoming the first UT Austin team to complete a fully autonomous unmanned aerial systems mission. View more photos and videos.

The year 2020 hasn’t been an easy one on the Forty Acres. Faculty have been working hard to learn the ins-and-outs of online teaching, students have been learning from home, and the opportunity for undergraduates to work in labs on hands-on projects has been extremely limited. But despite these challenges brought on by the global pandemic, a group of determined aerospace engineering seniors made history this fall by becoming the first UT Austin Senior Aircraft Design team to complete a fully autonomous unmanned aerial systems (UAS) mission.

Since 2012, students specializing in the atmospheric technical track have been closing out their senior year by taking the Aircraft Design I and II capstone course series. During the first semester students learn how to apply systems engineering principles and processes to aircraft design. They then select a Ready to Fly (RTF) radio control model aircraft based on their design requirements and develop design modifications to the aircraft to serve as their subscale UAS design. Modifications usually include a new wing design, upgraded propulsion system and additional mission systems.

During the second semester students modify their aircraft and perform ground and flight testing. The semester culminates with an end-of-semester fly-off competition to showcase their UAS design and to meet specified mission requirements including set-up, take-off, deployment to the area of interest, target search/surveillance, payload drop and landing. But due to the COVID crisis and transition to online/hybrid learning formats, students enrolled in aircraft design have had to adapt their work in in a number of creative ways in order to complete their senior projects.

Adapting to Succeed

image of woman soldering aircraft parts in lab

Seniors taking Aircraft Design II this fall had no choice but to enroll in the hybrid version of the course, which meant that most classes were taught online virtually and only around 30% of the usual lab time was allotted for building their aircraft. This left no time for designing and building new wings. Because of limited lab time to work on their Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (TDV), students selected an aircraft used by a former senior group, affectionately dubbed “Hugie,” to modify for their subscale UAS.

Members of this year’s team, the Anonymous Aviators, also had to learn new ways of communicating, which chief engineer and aerospace engineering senior Jonathan Zhang said was one of the hardest parts of the process.

“During a semester when we couldn’t hold frequent face-to-face meetings, it was easy for team members to lose contact and not communicate. Up until the first major design review, we were still figuring out all the kinks of working online and our failure to communicate showed in the first presentation,” Zhang said. “It was immediately obvious that something needed to change. We started meeting on Zoom a lot more than we used to and utilizing the Boeing Air Systems Lab as much as possible (to the extent that we were allowed to) for in-person meetings.”

Although students weren’t able to modify Hugie’s wings, they were still able to make several impressive modifications to the TDV such as implementing Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology, developing a new payload drop mechanism, installing a camera on the front of the aircraft and upgrading the autopilot parameters.

Taking Flight, Making History

photo of students with airplane on runway before flightOn Nov. 18, students headed to the airfield with course instructor Greg Zwernemann, where they spent much of the day flight testing before attempting the official fly-off mission later in the afternoon. Students continued to make final tweaks to Hugie – a somewhat menacing aircraft with a grimace and sharp teeth, a steel gray coat of paint and a colossal 12’ wingspan – until the time came to fly the official mission.

Within a 28-minute time period – one of the fastest records on time for the capstone course fly-off – the team successfully completed a take-off, flew three nautical miles, performed target search/surveillance, medical kit payload drops, returned to base, and landed, all autonomously, making history as the first team to perform such a mission autonomously since the inception of the fly-off requirement.

“The most rewarding part about the fly-off was that we were able to complete the mission successfully despite the pandemic,” Zhang said. “Coming into the semester, I wanted to show that even in this new world of remote learning, we could get something done. The fact that we even got it in the air and working was very rewarding indeed.”

Zwernemann, a professor of practice in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, said that the team far exceeded his expectations.

“Because of COVID-19 social distancing requirements we reduced our usual aircraft modification activities to limit the number of people and amount of time spent in the lab,” Zwernemann said. “So, the team decided to focus on executing a completely autonomous mission from take-off through landing – a first for our aircraft design course. This required integration of a Lidar in the flight control system and extensive flight test activity to tune autopilot parameters, especially for the landing segment. By shifting activities outdoors, they were able to safely implement a new capability in a short amount of time. I’m so proud of their accomplishment.”

Rising Above the Rest

Early on in the capstone series students begin working in a simulated industry environment where they gain an immeasurable wealth of hands-on experience while also learning how the systems engineering process works from start to finish.

“From the first days of class we have been in a simulated industry experience, all the way from reading the Statement of Work for the first time to presenting our final System Design Review,” said Brent Bauries, aerospace engineering senior and team systems engineer. “The experience I have gained in this class has been so valuable and now I know what a job in industry will actually look like. If I could take any class at UT twice, it would be aircraft design.”

Zhang believes the knowledge learned and applied in the aircraft design course sets him apart from other job candidates.

“I cannot overstate the number of people who have been incredibly impressed that I know the systems engineering design cycle,” Zhang said. “Every time I have interviewed for a job, I mention this project and the employers are blown away that I already have a command of the processes and terminology that they themselves use in their jobs. It sets me a step above the other candidates. It tells the employer that I am ready to jump right in and get down to business.”

Fall 2020 Anonymous Aviators Team Members

Russell Sutton, Team Lead
Jonathan Zhang, Chief Engineer
Brent Bauries, Systems Engineer
Katherine McKenna, Mission Systems Engineer
Jason Liddiard, ConOps Engineer
Garet Vaughn, Support and Logistics Engineer
Nicolas Saenz, Vehicle Mass Properties Engineer
Aleph Queiroz, Vehicle Lead
Kathryn Schmidt, Mission Systems Controls Engineer
Norberto Martinez, Vehicle Performance Engineer
Syed Shaharyar Shahabuddin, Vehicle Configuration Engineer