Drone built by Cal Poly students wins contest

Aerial education: Poly team's UAV really takes off, beats 14 others in regional contest testing maneuvering skills

nwilson@thetribunenews.comApril 20, 2014 

A team of Cal Poly students has created an object that might be confused with a UFO, a science-fiction film prop, or even a bizarre pool toy. 

Their invention of aluminum, PVC piping, steel and pool “noodle” foam makes a whiny buzz, hovers in the air, and gently lands in a field of grass on campus. 

They call it SkyBarge.

The group of nine engineering majors created its version of an unmanned aerial vehicle — commonly known as a drone. 

On April 5, their flying object steered by remote control won a regional American Society of Mechanical Engineers competition. 

Cal Poly hosted the contest, which is held annually at various campuses.

The challenge was to design a craft that could simulate a UAV firefighting operation. 

The Cal Poly students’ craft negotiated an obstacle course by flying through hoops and dropping a sandbag on target before returning to its starting point within the allotted five minutes. It completed the mission in about 90 seconds. 

The team beat out 14 other universities at the competition in the Bonderson Engineering building, where about 100 spectators gathered to watch. 

Other universities included San Jose State, Oregon Institute of Technology and University of Idaho.

Next, Cal Poly will compete in the society’s International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exposition, Nov. 14-20 in Montreal. 

The team includes mechanical engineering students Gordon Belyea (project leader), Garrett Gudgel (pilot), Ethan Juhnke, Brandon-Roy Sadiarin, Eric Dreischerf and Seyhun Oh; aerospace engineering students Hank Mandsager and Armand Lim; and agricultural engineering student Shane Thul.

A challenge was to avoid making a sudden movement or false step that might cause the plane to crash.

“Being the pilot during the competition was nerve-wracking,” Gudgel said. “But it also was very satisfying in knowing our team did a great job.”

The team members won’t reveal the specific dimensions or costs of their UAV because they don’t want to give away their secrets for the international competition.

A glitch in practice included a nosedive when the craft rolled to the right — which they corrected. 

Some of the other UAVs at the competition crashed.  Other drones were fashioned more like blimps than hovercrafts. 

One couldn’t get off the ground because of battery problems, the students said. 

Belyea, a sophomore engineering major, said the team tinkered with its UAV every day during the winter quarter after finding out about the competition from faculty adviser Russell Westphal.

“You have to learn how these things fly and test out battery systems,” Belyea said. “Once we were comfortable flying, we went back to the drawing board to adjust the settings and control flight characteristics.” 

Cal Poly’s drone was the largest in the competition, which gave it extra points for its ability to fly with more weight. And it produced a loud noise from the rotors.

Many uses for drones

Drones are no longer used just in secretive military special operations or surveillance missions.

The technology has stirred conversations on the ethics of using drones, including concerns that they could be used to spy on people or take photos of homes.

Interest among potential commercial users has intensified. Amazon.com hopes one day to use drones for deliveries, an application the Federal Aviation Administration has blocked since 2007. 

The National Transportation Safety Board overturned a recent ruling on commercial use, and the matter remains in legal limbo after an appeal by the FAA. 

And in 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to create regulations on how to assimilate drones into the skies by 2015. 

Media outlets and video production companies have recently started buying drones for aerial photography.

“It’s a real cool field to be into, and I don’t think the FAA knows exactly what to think about these things yet,” Belyea said. “They’re looking into how to regulate it. We’ll see what comes from that.” 

Westphal said the concepts his students learned from the project are valuable and augment their classroom work with difficult practical challenges.

Sometimes Cal Poly students in similar hands-on competitions are offered jobs by industry representatives. 

“I know from past experience that sometimes people see what’s done and immediately want to hire students,” Westphal said. “I remember a different event at which the Ford Motor Company offered two students jobs on the spot because of what they were able to do (in a wheel-based student competition). Northrop Grumman also watches for résumés from people with competition experience.”

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