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UT Engineering Students Develop Drone Software for NASA

New unmanned aerial vehicles – better known as drones – could soon roam over the Arctic and Polar regions of the planet. And at the University of Texas, engineering students aren’t working on the planes themselves, but rather the autonomous flight capability of the unmanned aircraft.

UT grad students at the Cockrell School of Engineering recently headed out to an open field with a movable sensor – called a rover –and a small drone aircraft to perform a test flight. The drone was programmed with an operating system that charts a path for performing a task, also known as an algorithm. It instructed the drone to follow the rover, which acted as a moving target.

“We like to think what we create is independent of the vehicle itself,” says UT grad student Miki Szmuk. “Our focus is on the algorithms … the sequence of logical steps that the autopilot takes in order to receive the desired goal.”

One entity interested in the groups’ goal is NASA. As a part of its Operation IceBridge, NASA is looking to position unmanned aircraft in the Artic region, capable of withstanding severe weather conditions. The rover UT’s Cockrell students used in their demonstration would be replaced with multiple sensors in the ground; the sensors would eventually move due to melting ice and shifting glaciers, alerting NASA’s drones to changing conditions to document.

“What we’re giving them is an enabling technology … to do what they want with minimal human supervision,” Szmuk says. “Then it’s up to the global warming scientist to figure out what sensors and measurements they want. This allows them to put their sensors where they want without having a human flying the airplane all the time.”  

Cockrell School of Engineering professor Maruthi Akella has overseen the project’s development. He says his students’ field test proved unmanned aerial vehicles can operate without a ground station managing the airplane which direction to fly. He says algorithm technology could be branched out to several regions – not just the Artic regions.

“We need to have a better way of managing our resources and planning for long-term sustainability,” Akella says, “and those things can only be better guided with the science. If we can say that ‘based on the models that we have, this is exactly how it’s going to play out,’ that gives the politicians and the planners the right polices to better manage the resources.”

The autonomous fight technology for unmanned aerial vehicles would be delivered to NASA by late November, Akella says it’s expected to put in use sometime after 2016.   

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