Students aiming to engineer triumph over uni rivals in drone 'fly off'

Issue date: 19 April 2016


Drone team

Students from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) will see their engineering skills put to the test when they go head-to-head with undergraduates from 11 other unis in a drone competition.

A team of 10 students are developing their own unmanned aircraft system (UAS) ahead of a 'fly off' with rival higher education institutions in the summer. They have been tasked with creating a drone capable of flying 1km before accurately dropping a 2kg package onto an airfield target.

It is the second year UWE Bristol has entered the annual contest run by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which also organises highly-respected university challenge Formula Student. The competition has been set up to give students a 'real world' engineering experience before they leave university.

Among the other institutions taking part are the University of Bath, University of Liverpool and Loughborough University.

The UWE Bristol team is being led by Pritesh Narayan, the university's programme lead for aero systems, and Abby Dalby, a fourth year aerospace engineering student. The group features students from several different disciplines and four year groups.

The drones will take to the skies at Pershore Airfield in Worcestershire in July, flying a circuit before detecting a marker on the ground and dropping their cargo under the watchful eye of judges from the Civil Aviation Authority.

But teams will not only be assessed on their flying performance – they will also be awarded points for a business case and video documentary which accompanies their entry.

Dr Narayan said there were many pitfalls with drone technology but was confident the UWE team would be in contention for the top prize.

He said: “It comes down to reliability. Even the electric motor in the drone will cause vibrations and parts can come loose and fall apart. And like a Windows PC can crash, the system controlling the drone can crash as well. It has to be designed with that in mind. We need to make sure everyone gets involved and we have all the resources in place to compete.

“The drone can be tested on campus but at the moment we can do all the testing in a virtual environment. By the time we go out there, we will be 99 per cent confident it will fly.

“Our chances are good – it takes a couple of years to know what you are doing in this competition. One of the students leading this same project at UWE last year now works at a company which designs drones – and he has come back to mentor the group. We are hoping Abby can do the same next year so we don't lose the experience and expertise.”

If the project is successful, UWE Bristol's drone could be leased out to external organisations.

Dr Narayan said: “If we can get it up and running, the aircraft could be used in surveillance, disaster relief, emergency services and even the police in cases where they are trying to locate missing persons.”

Abby, who is writing her dissertation on drones, said one of the biggest challenges was ensuring the aircraft met the competition's weight limit.

She said: “It's still massively overweight, and that's because the battery weighs so much. The organisation of the project, in terms of getting all the year groups together, is also a big challenge.”

John Turton, Chairman of the UAS Challenge, said: “The event has been set up to give students real world engineering experience before they leave university. The competition also offers recruitment opportunities for employers. The Challenge helps students to learn more about practical aerospace engineering skills as well as develop connections with other like-minded students from other universities.”

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