Nearly 100 university students in 15 teams from around the world will be competing next week at UND to see who has the best spy drone.
The challenge: design an unmanned aircraft that can fly undetected into a simulated enemy compound, and find and retrieve a small flash drive within five minutes.
And it has to do all this on its own, without human intervention.
The challenge is difficult enough that two similar competitions in past years ended with no winners.
The Great Plains chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is co-hosting the competition Tuesday through Friday at the Betty Engelstad Center. The event will also include a symposium and a showcase of unmanned aircraft.
“These are the best and brightest in the industry coming up,” said AUVSI chapter President Doug McDonald. “What they are trying to do can’t be done with current technology.”
The other co-host is the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., which helps businesses grow in the region and has an interest in expanding the unmanned aircraft industry here.
Teams will make presentations early in the event and prepare for the actual flying competition, which will take place 9 a.m. Thursday.
Participants from as close as down the street at UND and as far away as Bangalore, India, have worked the past year to develop their aircraft, each of which must weigh no more than 1.5 kilograms or 3.3 pounds.
Competition officials will begin setting up the course on Tuesday. It is expected to include various obstacles, motion sensors, surveillance cameras and guards. The contest rules allow outside navigation beacons and multiple aircraft teaming up.
“In any scholastic challenge, if you make it too easy, people aren’t interested,” McDonald said. “They are highly engaged with a ton of expertise and ready for a challenge.”
Teams are awarded points for avoiding obstacles, retrieving the flash drive, dropping off a decoy flash drive as well as safety, innovation and aircraft design.
AUVSI has hosted the competition for 22 years and there have been six missions or challenges. Missions are repeated each year until there is a winner.
This year’s competition will be mirrored Aug. 7 to 9 in Beijing for teams from China and Qatar.
McDonald said securing proper travel documents and federal restrictions on items needed for the competition made it difficult for those teams to compete here.
The goal of the competition is to draw more interest in the engineering, computer science and aviation fields, according to Eric Icard, an EDC official charged with helping unmanned aircraft businesses.
Icard said the EDC is co-hosting the event to help showcase the community, as well as the talent.
“People will see a competition that, given its complexity, has college students solve a problem utilizing their aerial robots,” he said. “Technology today doesn’t exist that can accomplish this mission, so by putting this out there, industry leaders see the problem solving skills and talent from the collegiate side.”
McDonald said companies such Northrop Grumman, an unmanned aircraft manufacturer, keep an eye on the students, as many have previously moved on to work for local aviation companies.
The competitors will also tour Digi-Key Corporation, a global electronic component distributor in Thief River Falls.
McDonald said the students will be surprised that a lot of the components used in the competition come from a company that is in the small Minnesota town.
If you go
What: International Aerial Robotics Competition for university students.
Where: Betty Engelstad Center
When: The unmanned aircraft will compete in the flying part of the competition starting 9 a.m. Thursday.
How much: The event is free and open to the public.