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Stanford Aeronautics Classmates Build Their Own Drones

Student teams in a 10-week class at Stanford University's School of Engineering build a drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), then compete with one another to use it.

It’s the perfect opportunity to not only learn the nuts and bolts behind a fast-growing technology, but also to apply that knowledge in a real-life situation.

"We get many students who are great at software and simulation, but they've seldom built anything," said Juan Alonso, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford.

Alonso began teaching the class way back in 2002 along with Ilan Kroo, a research professor of aeronautics and astronautics. But the class — and the hands-on approach the two professors bring to it — has taken on new significance in recent years as UAVs have more and more use in government and industry.

An understanding of the aircraft and the behavior of on-board sensors and communications is quickly becoming a necessity in the aeronautics field.

In the class, which only last two and a half months, the 24 students are broken up into three teams that each build their own UAVs and then, in the culmination of the course, compete with one another on a search-and-rescue mission where they’re expected to find four objects hidden in a practice field.

  Three teams of Stanford students build their unmanned aerial vehicles and then used them to find four objects in an empty field in a timed competition.
Three teams of Stanford students build their unmanned aerial vehicles and then used them to find four objects in an empty field in a timed competition.

Alonso said it's a very appropriate exercise for anybody thinking of a career working with UAVs.

"If you want to use UAVs to map the coral reefs off Miami Beach, you'd better understand how to follow accurately some pre-specified paths even in the presence of wind gusts," he said.

The teams are responsible for the design, fabrication and programming of the UAVs that eventually have wingspans no larger than a pair of outstretched arms.

"One of our secret advantages was fabrication," said Ian Villa, who is working on a master's degree in aeronautics and astronautics.

His team, the Red Team, redesigned their fuselage-wing combination to improve aerodynamics, get better wind speed readings and increase the available space to carry all their electronics.

The goal of the competition was to find the four objects with the UAVs that had battery-powered propellers and could fly no higher than 400 feet over an empty field. The winner of the contest — which did turn out to be the Red Team — had to find the four objects in the shortest amount of time.

Taking a bit of a gamble, the competing Blue Team built their UAV without a fuselage, making it look like a wide "V." However, that also made it tougher to control in the wind, costing it valuable time. The Yellow Team had its own problems as well: Early in the protoyping stage, their plane's onboard controller quit and it took team members time to realize they'd asked its tiny memory buffer to do too much.

It happens.

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.

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