NASA Engineers Compete In Unmanned Aircraft Challenge
September 20, 2013

NASA Engineers Compete In Unmanned Aircraft Challenge

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

There’s nothing like a little friendly competition to push people outside their comfort zones. That’s the idea behind NASA’s recent unmanned aircraft competition held at the Kennedy Space Center.

To win the competition, engineers had to build and pilot a radio-controlled aircraft through a series of search-and-rescue tasks. The aircraft had to be able to use sensors to identify the wreckage of an aircraft, a model "black box" and several crash dummies. The aircraft were also put through their paces on endurance runs.

NASA engineers at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center and Marshall Space Flight Center all took part in the competition, while experts from Ames Research Center, Dryden Flight Research Center and Langley Research Center judged the results.

"There was a plaque, but other than bragging rights, that was about it," said Mark Ross, a NASA test director who coordinated the competition.

The space agency said that the technology on display could be used to locate a downed crew returning from space, stranded hikers, or survivors of a plane or boat crash. The competition also added new abilities to the experienced engineers' skill set and gave young engineers a window into the process that goes into developing a full-scale project.

"There was a lot of realization that this was a rare opportunity to see things from cradle to grave, to see something from idea to actually flying," Ross said. "They also learned a good bit about the systems engineering process, which was the whole intent behind this and how to apply it in a practical way."

The Kennedy Space Center team chose to build a fixed-wing, remote-control aircraft. The Florida-based group created the airframe from scratch and designed the software to operate it.

"The whole purpose is to use low-cost, high-capability equipment to get hands-on experience," said Steve Sullivan, chief engineer for the Kennedy team. "If you go to class, build something and fly it – that stays with you. I think it keeps your brain sharp."

Branching outside their usual areas of expertise stimulated the engineers from the various space centers and pushed them to work together intently, according to Jan Lomness, project manager for the Kennedy aircraft.

"I think the team camaraderie and exchange of information was really important," Lomness said.

Peter Ma, an engineer with the Marshall center, said his team had trouble getting the craft’s sensor system to recognize people.

"People can be in a lot of different positions, make a lot of shapes," he said.

Despite the sensor issue, the Marshall team went on to win the competition.

The Kennedy center group faced a challenge on its last flight when the plane lost the communication link with its ground controller and went into a programmed spiral to the ground. The team said they will conduct an informal investigation to determine the problem and how to fix it, Ross said.

Ross, the competition organizer, said no future competitions are planned at the moment. The space agency noted that many programs at the various NASA centers have a diverse curriculum, so future competitions are possible and may involve model rockets, high-altitude balloons or other vehicles.