UA Team Ties for Micro Air Vehicle Win at Competition

By Ed Stiles, College of Engineering

The team also snagged the prize for Best Exotic MAV Design and a Meritorious Award from the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center.

The University of Arizona’s Micro Air Vehicle Team recently tied for first place in the most difficult and complex competition yet presented to the tiny spy planes.

The UA’s strong showing – along with two fellow winners, an MIT/corporate team and another corporate team – demonstrated that the University is among the leaders in developing the world’s smallest and most capable Micro Air Vehicles, known as MAVs.

Fifteen teams gathered in Agra, India, for MAV 08, a competition designed to push the tiny planes and autonomous ground vehicles to their limits and beyond. The U.S. Army sponsored the competition in cooperation with several Indian agencies.

MAVs are tiny, radio-controlled airplanes that can be sent into situations that are too dangerous, difficult or time consuming for human observers. Some MAVs have wingspans of less than 5 inches. Most are powered by electric motors and carry onboard video and various sensors.

The MAV 08 test scenario required teams to use both MAVs and robotic ground vehicles. Those teams, like the UA’s, that did not have a ground vehicle were given a car and driver to use as a simulated Unmanned Ground Vehicle.

Hostage Rescue Scenario

“The idea was to rescue hostages who were being held by terrorists in a bank,” said professor Sergey Shkarayev, the team’s faculty adviser. Terrorists also were circling the building and watching for attacks. Meanwhile, a group of commandos started from one kilometer away, and their movements were guided by information sent back from the MAVs and autonomous ground vehicles.

Each team was given only 40 minutes to find the best route through a maze of streets, clear land mines and obstacles, and get the commandos to the bank. None of the teams were able to complete the mission in the allotted time, demonstrating that a mission of this complexity is still beyond the capabilities of current MAV technology.

The MAVs were judged on their level of autonomy (ability to fly without human control), whether they were capable of vertical flight, how many obstacles and mines they detected, and other factors.

The UA team entered two planes – a fixed wing design and a Vertical Take-Off and Landing, or VTOL, plane. The other winning teams flew helicopters.

“There was only a very small wedge of space where we could fly near the bank, and the rest was a no-fly zone,” said Bill Silin, a doctoral student in aerospace and mechanical engineering. “So it was difficult for our fixed wing plane to get in there. We had to approach by making smaller and smaller circles.”

Both UA planes were equipped with video cameras, which sent pictures to two LCD monitors – one for the judges and one for the team. The planes, which were completely autonomous, were guided to Global Positioning System waypoints that were sent out by team members during the mission in real time.

Much to Do in 40 Minutes

“The critical thing about this competition was that we had to get the system working, figure out the mission plan, and carry it out all in 40 minutes,” said Gavin Kumar, a senior in aerospace and mechinical engineering and the team captain.

“I think we impressed the judges because everything was ready, everything flew on the first attempt, and the judges were able to see clear videos of the streets,” Silin said.

This kind of smooth operation didn’t just happen, he added. It resulted from long hours of work starting several months before the competition.

“We were working 18-hour days,” Silin said. “Every night we would be in the lab until midnight or 1 a.m. Then we would wake up at 6 or 7 and head back to the lab. In between, we had to go to class. That continued right up to the day of the competition in India.”

While the teams with helicopters did well, Shkarayev believes the future of MAV technology is with VTOL aircraft. “It’s important to be able to fly very fast in addition to being able to hover,” he said. “Our MAVs fly up to 40 mph autonomously with no trouble, but, at the same time, our new VTOL planes can hover to survey an area.” While helicopters can hover, they’re slow compared with fixed wing planes.

Shkarayev and his students have been developing MAV technology at the UA since 2003 and have undertaken two major research projects, one for the Air Force Research Lab and the other for the U.S. Army Battle Command.

In addition to tying for first place with the other teams, the UA team won the prize for the best exotic vehicle with their VTOL plane and a meritorious award for the team’s performance during the competition. The other two winning teams also won meritorious awards.

Four team members went to the competition: Silin, Kumar, aerospace and mechanical engineering senior David Addai, and Roman Krashanitsa, an aerospace and mechanical engineering post-doctoral researcher.

A senior design group in the department also helped develop and prepare the MAV systems for competition. The team included seniors Kumar, Michael Griffis, Chasen Moses, Justin Alamedo, James Ebernado and Todd Jackson.

The UA team is sponsored by the Battle Command Lab at Ft. Huachuca, Ariz.; the NASA Space Grant program; Lockheed-Martin; and the UA College of Engineering.