Unmanned aircraft competition teaches troubleshooting skills

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From The Enterprise

Air Force, which prefers to call its fleet of autonomously aircraft “remotely piloted vehicles.”

As teams from 26 colleges and high schools from the U.S., Canada and India discovered and demonstrated last week at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International student competition in St. Inigoes, it takes a lot of people to fly an “unmanned” aircraft.

Even then, it’s hard to get them into the air, keep them flying and make them productive.

Take Mississippi State University’s team for example. Seven men gathered in a tent next to a runway at the Navy’s Webster Field installation last Friday and went through a pre-flight routine that would have impressed NASA head count, flight plan review and equipment checks, the whole deal.

The crew rolled their plane onto the runway. And then the bloody engine wouldn’t start.

After calling a timeout with the judges, team leader Eric Hill immediately went to work on morale, saying, “Everybody relax. We’re not out of the game. This is nothing that can’t happen to any other team.”

Or to any military mega-contractor. Northrop Grumman has had a rough month with its UAV products. Last week, Pentagon testers declared Northrop Grumman’s latest Global Hawk drone, similar to the one the Navy will be testing at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, “not operationally effective.” The plane was only able to accomplish its mission 27 percent of the time.

Northrop had another embarrassment this week when a Fire Scout unmanned helicopter crashed while conducting reconnaissance in Libya. This is the same system that escaped from Webster Field last year and wandered into Washington, D.C., airspace.

So it was little wonder why Northrop, along with SAIC, Johns Hopkins University and Lockheed Martin, had recruiting tables set up at the AUVSI event last week. They need students who have experience with troubleshooting.

“The future of the engineering workforce is out here,” said Joe Brannan, chief engineer for the Navy’s Support and Commercial Derivative Aircraft program office (PMA-207) and AUVSI’s student competition director. “These are the guys who will be running [Naval Air Systems Command] in 15 years.”

Brannan said the teams were competing for $70,000 in prize money, including placement in overall performance as well as completion of smaller goals. Each team had to build an aircraft, present a paper on in for the judges and use it to find and photograph several targets around the airfield. This last part was timed.

The University of Texas at Austin managed to pull a 12th-place finish, despite having a disastrous hardware failure half an hour before their scheduled flight.

“We’ve been developing an autopilot of our own,” said team leader Michael Szmuk. “Unfortunately the mother board burnt out on us.”

The U.S. Air Force Academy knows all about fickle autopilots. The team was crushed last year when their aircraft’s freshly-activated autopilot promptly wandered through the competition boundary and ditched the plane into the woods.

This year, Cadet Chase Welch brought back the team’s honor by piloting a soft landing after a successful flight test of their latest aircraft. Their reward for everything going right was respectable fourth-place finish.