Tactical UAV design earns cadet team multiple awards

Westpoint Cadets sUAS

Mike Strasser, West Point Public Affairs

WEST POINT, N.Y., May 11, 2011 — Soldiers sometimes operate in remote locations where maps are either outdated, or lack adequate resolution. Mission success could weigh heavily on whether a unit relies on low-quality resources or waits indefinitely for higher-quality imagery.

A team of West Point cadets worked on this problem and developed a senior capstone design project which garnered three awards in recent weeks. Class of 2011 Cadets Mike Weigand, Anthony Rodriguez, John Rollinson and James Raub built STITCH, or “Supplying Tactical Imagery to Command Headquarters,” a low-cost, lightweight, fully autonomous unmanned aerial system.

The UAV can collect and stitch together terrain photos to create a current, high-resolution geo-rectified photo-mosaic map over a range of several miles.

The team, with advisors Col. Grant Jacoby and Chris Okasaki, earned second place at the 11th annual Rochester Institute of Technology Student Design Contest May 7, 2011. Judging at this event was based on presentation, project demonstration, teamwork, quality of technical content and innovation.

“The significance of STITCH is that it addresses a longtime need of ground troops in a simple, inexpensive and readily implementable fashion,” Jacoby, director of the computer science program, said. “What I’m most proud of, though, is their motivated attitude. Right now they feel that they can conquer any technical challenge, so odds are they will probably continue to contribute in this capacity to the Army.”

At the 8th annual Soldier Design Competition sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the STITCH team received the “Most Innovative” award from Gore Creative Technologies Worldwide.

The interdisciplinary team also earned “Best Project” from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science during West Point’s Projects Day April 28, 2011.

The awards recognize the team’s accomplishment, but Rodriguez said there were many other capstone teams working just as hard throughout the year.

“We just happened to have been pulled into a spotlight,” Rodriguez said. “Yes, it’s awesome, because we put forth the hard work, but we weren’t the only team working this hard.”

The project is the culmination of a year’s work, but as the cadets are mere days away from their commissioning as second lieutenants, Rodriguez likened it more as the representation of everything he learned as a computer science major.

“It’s nice to have this happen now as everything is coming to an end for us at the academy,” Rodriguez said. “It’s sort of like trying to find some lasting thing that you can leave behind.”

Each member chose to work on this particular project rather than being assigned to a team, and Rodriguez said that factored into a great team dynamic.

“We weren’t given a project to do. We created it from scratch. Each of us wanted to be here, wanted to work and wanted to see it through to the end,” Rodriguez said.

Sometimes that end seemed unattainable. The design concept lists a number of impressive attributes: autonomous, low-cost, accurate, long-range, and light-weight. So, it became a question of whether they could make it all work. Even late into the project development, they found themselves fighting an uncooperative autopilot defect.

“At one point, the camera wouldn’t take pictures when plugged into the USB cable, but you could get data off it when it wasn’t plugged in,” Rollinson said. “So we kind of had to put together our own and spoof it into thinking it was or was not connected to the USB.”

“It was also very difficult getting the autopilot to interface correctly with all the other software components,” he said. “It was a lot to take on, but we always kept trying, kept moving forward.”

Like most projects, the UAV was developed inside a lab and mostly hidden from public view.

But testing required a much bigger space, so it was not uncommon to see the cadets flying their project around the parade field.

During the traditional SOSH Run, where cadets take dramatic license in delivering their final course paper before deadline, Raub was testing the UAV nearby the run route.

Some spectators were left wondering if he was going to send a course paper by air. It was not unusual for the team to field questions throughout the year during such test flights.

These impromptu chats provided practice articulating the presentations they would soon be delivering at the MIT and RIT design competitions and on Projects Day.

“Throughout the semester as we were doing random tests. We had quite a few civilians touring West Point come up and ask us questions,” Raub said. “But during the hardcore testing, we would go out to Lake Frederick where we weren’t bothered at all.”

Weigand had prior success with UAVs a year earlier, earning recognition for his own independent study project. He said working with a team this year was even more rewarding than his solo experience.

“It was a lot more enjoyable,” Weigand said. “What we accomplished is so much greater in a team effort than what we could have done individually.”

Weigand said the strides he made last year in developing an autonomous UAV model are inches compared to the miles achieved working in a group.

“I attest it (our success) all to my teammates. Their work ethic and the qualities each of them brought to the team allowed us to accomplish so much more,” he said.

Jacoby said this was a good example of what interdisciplinary teams from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department can do.

“Teams comprised of different disciplines learn not only how to interface between their complementary differences but also to better appreciate the nature of the other discipline and, moreover, the purpose of their own,” Jacoby said. “Capstone projects are all about critical thinking and preparing our majors to apply their skills and knowledge to solve relevant problems.”

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Patrick Egan
Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).