GTAR places first in aerial robotics contest

By Sijia Cai

Staff Writer

The Georgia Tech Aerial Robotics team (GTAR) won first place in the 2008 International Aerial Robotics Competition in Fort Benning, Ga.

This competition is the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s longest-running and most challenging annual competition, drawing in competitors from the U.S., Canada and India.

Since 1991, the competition has required teams to create autonomous flying robots to perform a certain mission.

This year’s mission involved the interaction of aerial robots with buildings, asking the robots to find and identify targets, as well as relay information from within the structures. The collegiate teams built completely autonomous flying robots that had to complete several difficult levels.

Level 1 included flying a 3-kilometer path to find a village, where the robot then had to identify a specific building along with its entrances.

For Level 2, the machine had to select an opening, locate the target and send pictures of the target back 3-kilometers to the launch point.

Level 3 required the teams to complete the task by either flying into the building or dispatching an autonomous sensor probe.

The last level required the flawless operation of this mission in less than 15 minutes.

“This was the most challenging mission to date,” said Eric Johnson, faculty advisor of GTAR. “It’s the first time these actions have ever been completed together before, and we’re constantly working on currently impossible missions.”

Tech’s aerial vehicle is named GTMax and is based on the Yamaha RMAX helicopter.

Its equipment includes general-purpose computers, a GPS system, high-resolution digital cameras, infrared sensors and mechanisms to detect contact with other objects. Software includes three image processing and tracking systems along with navigation and control components.

During the five-day competition, the Tech team made four attempts to complete the mission. In all but one try, GTMax accomplished most of the challenge. It flew to the small village and selected an entrance but missed the opening when it tried to lower a 12-foot bar into the entrance. Therefore, the ground robot, which was originally supposed to drop from the boom into the building, drove around outside instead, sending images back to the starting point.

“Of course it would have been nice to complete the entire mission, but we were very satisfied with the results nonetheless,” Johnson said.

But for members of the robotics team, it was more than just research and entering competitions.

“The great teamwork and camaraderie in this RAV lab are much more important than winning competitions,” said Girish Chowdhary, a graduate Aerospace Engineering major and a member of GTAR. “We’re a very cohesive team.”

Although none of the participating teams could complete the mission in less than 15 minutes, the judges deemed this to no longer be a significant challenge. Since no team had completed the entire mission, the total prize money of $80,000 was distributed among them based on demonstrated performance. Tech came in first place with a prize of $27,200, while Virginia Tech and Embry Riddle/Devry came in second and third, respectively.

“It enhances Tech’s reputation as one of the foremost research universities in the world,” Johnson said. “The research done in our lab is finding practical uses in more and more governmental and civil areas.”

The students agree with him.

“I think that this type of project is useful because it spurs further development in the electrical and computer engineering sector,” said Duncan Osborn, a first-year ECE major.