Top robotic helicopter team sets sights on impossible mission (w/ Video)

August 2, 2013
The Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicles (MAAV) team prepares for its annual International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC) with a test run in the Wilson Center on July 22, 2013. Credit: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering Communications & Marketing

If the mission sounds impossible, that's because it is—at least with today's technology: Build a three-pound flying machine that can, under its own control, take off, fly through a window into a model building, avoid security lasers, navigate the halls, recognize signs, enter the correct room, find a flash drive in a box on a desk, pick it up, leave a decoy, exit and land in under 10 minutes.

It's the charge of the International Aerial Robotics Competition—a contest that's in its 18th year, but only its sixth mission. It tends to take a few years for a team to build a craft that can accomplish it. In 2012, U-M's group came closest of the 21 participating teams. And this year the students say they're poised to succeed.

"We've had a year to work on retrieval. We've had a year to work on dropping a decoy. We've had a year to further tighten everything and adjust the tolerances," said Jonathan Bendes, leader of the Michigan Autonomous Aerial Vehicle team and a senior computer science major.

"The pieces that weren't in place before are now," said Jonathan Kurzer, a senior in who leads the circuits division. "And we know we can move on to the next task, which is winning."

The team's entry is a quadrotor—a helicopter with four —that the students assembled and programmed nearly from scratch. Its carries two lasers, two video cameras, three computers of varying complexity, a backup radio, an inertial measurement unit—or —and a retractable spool of with a magnet as the bait.

The lasers scan the environment so the craft can map its surroundings. That's how it knows where the entry window is, and how it avoids crashing into the walls.

"It's able to perceive the room and figure out where it is," Bendes said. "Once it knows both what the room looks like, and where it is in the room, going to a specific place becomes much easier."

The gather data for the image processing programs, which can identify signs as well as the prized flash drive.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The motion sensors keep tabs on the quadrotor's flight angles and position, measuring the distance and direction it has traveled from the starting point. This is all important information for both navigating and staying stable, said Isaac Olson, a senior aerospace engineering major who heads the controls division.

The magnet's role is to grab the . The spool is an attempt to avoid what happened last year, when the magnet dangled about eight inches from the belly of the craft.

"We caught something," Bendes said. "A chair."

The quadrotor broke free. Then it crashed into a wall.

The team still got more points than any of the teams because the judges determined its aircraft was the most autonomous. Autonomous air vehicles are designed to think for themselves, essentially. There's no human controlling them remotely (though this contest requires an override switch for emergencies).

Beyond military uses, they could one day be used to survey collapsed buildings or inspect hard-to-get-to parts of bridges and other infrastructure. An offshoot group from a previous team is working to commercialize the U-M technology through a startup called SkySpecs that inspects windmills.

The students say they're one of a few teams that build vehicles from the ground up. They work with professors to get research versions of software and hardware, then they tweak them and combine them into a truly unique system.

"Nothing within the world military or industrial arsenal of robots is able to complete the proposed mission at the time the guidelines are released," according to the contest website.

The custom nature of the U-M quadrotor gives them an edge, team members say.

"We know this vehicle inside and out," said Jose Gomez, a junior aerospace engineering major who leads the structures division. "We're not black-boxed out of anything because we wrote the code. You get that warm, fuzzy feeling when it flies."

"That's pretty much a requirement for an aerospace engineer—when something you made flies," Olson said.

The team will get four tries to complete the mission on Aug. 7 in Grand Forks, N.D. Fourteen students are going, but mostly to be spectators.

"All we get to do," Bendes said, "is turn it on, press the start button, step back and wait."

Explore further: UM unmanned robot team Australia bound for international competition

More information: Follow the team's competition blog at

Related Stories

Flying machines are YouTube sensation

March 22, 2011

( -- The latest YouTube sensation isn’t a puppy that dances to Lady Gaga or a kitten that opens beer bottles. By using unmanned aerial vehicles called quadrotors, two Ph.D. candidates at the School of Engineering ...

Flying robots get off the ground

June 17, 2013

Attaching a platform to a high-rise building to evacuate people in an emergency, or creating a landing stage for an aircraft on uneven terrain - these are just two areas in which flying robots could have a huge impact - potentially ...

Recommended for you

The ethics of robot love

November 25, 2015

There was to have been a conference in Malaysia last week called Love and Sex with Robots but it was cancelled. Malaysian police branded it "illegal" and "ridiculous". "There is nothing scientific about sex with robots," ...

Nevada researchers trying to turn roadside weed into biofuel

November 26, 2015

Three decades ago, a University of Nevada researcher who obtained one of the first U.S. Energy Department grants to study the potential to turn plants into biofuels became convinced that a roadside weed—curly top gumweed—was ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.