MSU engineering students design, build, fly UAV in competition

Contact: Phil Hearn

Blake Sanders of Byram,  Nathan Whitfield of Picayune and Ian Broussard of Carencro, La. (l-r),  show off the unmanned aerial vehicle they and 14 other Mississippi State engineering students designed, built and flew in recent international competition.
Blake Sanders of Byram, Nathan Whitfield of Picayune and Ian Broussard of Carencro, La. (l-r), show off the unmanned aerial vehicle they and 14 other Mississippi State engineering students designed, built and flew in recent international competition.

STARKVILLE, Miss.--Students at Mississippi State are part of a new generation of undergraduate university engineers who are designing and building unmanned aerial vehicles capable of performing real-world missions.

A 17-member team from MSU's Bagley College of Engineering finished seventh among 14 national and international groups in the third annual student competition of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The challenge was held earlier this month at the Navy's Patuxent River/Webster Field Annex in St. Inigoes, Md.

"The competition allowed us to experience every aspect of the engineering involved in an aircraft and its systems," said team member Ian Broussard, a junior aerospace engineering major from Carencro, La.

Mississippi State's Team-X-ipiter--including two spring graduates and a couple of recent high school graduates from Starkville who'll be university freshmen next month--designed and fabricated an autonomous flying vehicle with sophisticated sensors and cameras, which navigated a competitive course and performed realistic aviation missions.

"The purpose of the competition is to challenge a new generation of engineers to design and build autonomous unmanned air vehicles capable of performing realistic missions in a simulated environment, and to foster ties between young engineers and the organizations developing UAV technologies," said competition director Jim Brannan.

Brannan said mission objectives for the flying portion of the competition called for an unmanned, radio-controllable aircraft to be launched and transitioned to autonomous flight. The craft then was to be navigated over a specified course, using onboard payload sensors to locate and assess a series of man-made targets before returning to the launch point for landing.

Each team was required to complete the assigned tasks within 40 minutes. Teams also were judged on technical papers submitted two weeks before the competition.

"It was a tough job getting all of the electronics to operate as a single unit and eliminating the electromagnetic interference," said junior aerospace engineering major Nathan Whitfield of Picayune, who worked on systems for the MSU team.

Calvin Walker, a team adviser and research associate at Bagley's Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, where the UAV was built, noted the MSU group included students from aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, and electrical and computer engineering--all academic disciplines within the college. The group included one female member.

Tony Vizzini heads MSU's aerospace engineering department, which is Raspet's administrative home. Kirk Schulz is dean of the engineering college.

"The competition gives these students real-world experiences," said Walker, a native of the Steens community near Columbus. His co-adviser for the MSU team was Randolph Follett, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"They interact with one another like they would at Lockheed Martin, Boeing or any other aerospace company where different engineering types work together on an airplane or some other system," added the 1988 MSU aerospace engineering graduate.

In entering the competition for the first time a year earlier, MSU simply modified a pre-designed scale, radio-control aircraft to suit the needs of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. This year, the Team X-ipiter took the process a step farther by designing and fabricating the UAV to perform all mission procedures.

The UAV was designed to carry a 10-15-pound payload insensitive to vibrations and heat. The payload consisted of two digital cameras (one video, one still), a Micropilot 2028g autopilot, high and low bandwidth wireless transmission capabilities, and a small form factor personal computer for programming communications.

A student-designed power supply unit was utilized to power all of the onboard electronic components, utilizing an engine-driven AC generator. A backup battery was provided in the event of engine failure, a flight data recorder was placed on board, and electromagnetic brakes were installed to minimize the landing distance.

"This competition has given me knowledge beyond the classroom," said team leader Blake Sanders of Byram, a May aerospace engineering graduate now employed by Aurora Flight Sciences of Mississippi.

The association awarded $18,750 in total prize money, including $6,500 that went to the overall winning team from the University of Texas at Arlington. The MSU team won $750 for its effort.

Other top university finishers in the 2005 event included Virginia Commonwealth, second place, North Carolina State, third; Virginia Tech, fourth; Manitoba (Canada), fifth; and Kentucky, sixth.

The other competing groups were not ranked. They represented California State Polytechnic, Cornell, Istanbul Technical (Turkey), and St. Louis universities, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Polytechnic University of New York and Parks College.

Members of the MSU team included (by hometown):

BROOKHAVEN--Mark Dyess, a senior mechanical engineering major and the son of James and Theresia Dyess.

BYRAM--Blake Sanders [cited earlier], the son of Bill and Vicky Sanders.

CARENCRO, La.--Ian Broussard [cited earlier], the son of Tommy and Carolyn Broussard.

CLINTON--Brian Thomas, a junior computer science major and the son of James and Shelia Thomas.

GAUTIER--Chris Harper, a freshman electrical engineering major and the son of James and Cindy Harper.

LEWISBURG, Tenn.--Sam Curtis, a sophomore aerospace engineering major and the son of Mike and Kaye Curtis.

HOUSTON--Jutima Simsiriwong, a junior aerospace engineering major. [Names of the Thailand native's parents were not available.]

NETTLETON--Ricky Gray, a senior electrical engineering major and the son of Ricky and Joy Gray.

OCEAN SPRINGS--Marty Brennan, a sophomore aerospace engineering major and the son of Earl and Alice Barlow.

PICAYUNE--Nathan Whitfield [cited earlier], the son of Kent and Marie Whitfield.

POPLARVILLE--Chris Martin, a junior aerospace engineering major and the son of Bruce and Sandra Martin.

RIDGELAND--Joel Konkle-Parker, a senior aerospace engineering major and the son of Jefferson Parker and Deborah Konkle-Parker.

STARKVILLE--Incoming freshman Luke Hollingsworth, a May Starkville Academy graduate and the son of Dan and Elizabeth Hollingsworth; senior computer science major Chris Robinson [parents' names not provided]; and incoming freshman Anthony Vizzini II, a May Starkville High School graduate and the son of Anthony and Patty Vizzini.

TUPELO--Jared Allen, a sophomore geosciences major and the son of Jim and Sandy Allen.

VICKSBURG--Craig Ross, a May computer engineering graduate now enrolled in graduate school at MSU. He is the son of Stanley and Tricia Ross.

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Thu, 07/21/2005 - 05:00