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Flying to win: College drone teams face off, 30 feet up

In an empty football field, five young men in blue shirts and pants walk toward the 50-yard line as they look up and watch their drown, 30 feet in the air, ahead of them.
Bill Zeeble
Members of UT Arlington’s drone team follow their machine on its flight to find the target set on the field by a judge. If everything works, the drone will locate the target and land on it.

Five college drone teams gathered recently in an empty football field to tackle tasks set by judges and a local defense contractor.

A bunch of kids got together to play with drones recently. Only they weren’t children playing with pricey toys. They were university teams competing against each other. Computer science students had to work with teammates who were mechanical and electrical engineering majors to program the drones to autonomously fly, then land, on one specific spot of the field. Challenges demanded team-based problem-solving. So, cooperate or fail.

Individual challenges were tough enough, but dense clouds over the University of Texas at Arlington’s Maverick’s football field and high winds affected on-board cameras, challenged the propeller engines and impeded efficient drone flights.

Still, the University of Texas at El Paso’s drone managed to fly autonomously, meaning it was pre-programmed, flying without hand controls. It performed the first challenge as designed, said team leader Carlos Quinones. The computer engineering senior said the team’s drone took off from the end zone all the way to the 30-yard line.

“It goes all the way up to 30 feet,” said Quinones, “and it starts moving forward all the way to yard 30. Once it reaches yard 30 it should start landing down. The one that takes the least amount of time, the one that’s able to stay more accurate with an elevation, that, of course, gets the most amount of points.”

Points are needed for a win, as UTEP is up against UT Arlington, UT Austin, UT Dallas and Southern Methodist University. Judge Chris Lackey, who's an engineer at the contest sponsor Raytheon Technologies, said companies don’t measure success in points.

“You've got mechanical engineers, you’ve got software engineers, you've got electrical engineers,” Lackey said. “They're working together. That's absolutely what you have to have in the workplace. You've got a lot of folks that are coming from different backgrounds and different ideas, but when they get together, that's when the real magic starts to happen.”

That magic, or maybe just collective and creative thinking, helped UT Arlington’s team decide the drone’s landing feet would be square, spongy blue packing foam.

“We had to make sure that our landing gear was robust, our electronics housing was robust, so if we crashed, then nothing would bend or break or anything like that,” explained mechanical engineering senior Alejandro Araujo, UTA’s team leader.

“Our first test flight,” continued Araujo, “we actually crashed into a tree and our motor mounts bent and our electronics housing was destroyed, but our landing gear did save our electronics.”

With repairs, their drone lived to fly again and tackle a different task: find and land on a two-foot by two-foot target placed somewhere on the field.

That meant the drone needed a camera capable of ‘seeing’ the target, then safely landing on it.

The team’s first flight took it half a football field away from the target. So computer science engineering teammate Tyler Westbook, laptop in hand, typed in constant adjustments to compensate for low light and high winds.

IMG_8453 (2).JPG Three men and one woman stand in an empty football field, two holding laptop computers. At the bottom of the photo, sitting on the ground, is a four-propeller drone with square, blue feet as landing gear under each propeller.
UT Arlington drone team members contemplate adjustments to their flight plan in order to improve the next launch. Bearded Tyler Westbrook looks to his right. Teammate Beatriz Meadows (r) said “What this experience has done for me is (teach me) how to collaborate with different disciplines, which is what I’m going to see in the workforce.”

“Let’s say, like our altitude, we would be too low. So we wouldn't detect it,” Westbrook said. “So then we would go a little bit higher to get our field of view a little bit better and then it would give us a better chance of detecting it.”

After several attempts with the clock ticking on the allotted 20 minutes, the drone eventually landed just a few feet from the target. Westbrook liked the outcome.

“Being able to make adjustments on the fly like that, especially in this high-pressure changing environment, really helps," Westbrook said. "I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t land right on it but we did good.”

Good enough, hopes Westbrook, so this drone experience can help land him a job.

Teammate Beatriz Meadows already has a job lined up with electric company Oncor. The future transmission planning engineer wasn’t hired with this college drone experience, but now that she has it, she thinks it might chart a new path for her Oncor gig.

“Transmission lines run for 500 miles or more,” Meadows said. “We actually send drones and we can send autonomous drones later, to see how weather affects our lines, if our lines are in a good state, if it's time to replace them.”

As for the drone contest, UTA's team landed in third place, while UTD soared to first. SMU floated into second place.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.