U of A aircraft gearing up for autonomous takeoff

LOOK WAY UP: UAARG has seven members and two academic advisers. Pictured (L-R) are club member Andrew Jowsey and co-president Rijesh Augustine.

(EDMONTON) Clear skies are in the forecast for the University of Alberta Aerial Robotics Group (UAARG). Club members are departing for an international competition in the U.S. where their aircraft, Jownsey, will be put to the test June 14 to 17.

In the competition, Jownsey, a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), will be tasked with performing an autonomous takeoff and landing, and completing a mission along the flight path. Once airborne, the aircraft will have to identify number- and letter-shaped markers on the ground, photograph them with an on-board camera, transmit the images to the base, and pinpoint their exact geolocation with GPS.  

This year, the Faculty of Engineering-based team revamped the aircraft’s autopilot board, upgraded the camera and image transmission system, and aligned the plane’s wings to address previous challenges and streamline the existing design.   

“Our autopilot board is more reliable, less expensive, and much easier to transport,” said Rijesh Augustine, a master’s student in electrical engineering and one of the team members.

“Last year, one of the wings was misaligned, causing an issue with autopilot,” said Sebastian Werner, an electrical engineering graduate and one of the team members. This year’s improvements leave no wiggle room for the wings, securing a better autopilot performance. 

“With the updated camera and image transmission system, we can take better quality pictures, and they are transmitted almost live,” said Cindy Xiao, an electrical engineering graduate.

Jownsey will have only one shot at completing the flight and the team has set its sights on victory.

“We’ve completed 15 autonomous takeoffs and the aircraft have been very successful so far,” Augustine said.

“We’ve beaten a lot of Ivy Leagues schools before,” said Duncan Elliott, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the group advisor. The UAARG has a long and impressive history of participation in UAV competitions home and overseas.

The plane’s performance at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in St. Mary’s County, MD, will be evaluated based on autopilot performance and mission completion. To score extra points, the aircraft will have to be able to identify, photograph, and locate objects outside the flight boundaries without changing its course. 

The group has already passed the first round of competition with flying colours—the judges have accepted the technical journal paper the team submitted prior to departure.

“The group has been my home for four years,” said Andrew Jowsey, a computer engineering graduate and a member of the group. “My teamwork skills have improved.”

“It’s incredible to watch these student develop. In a three-hour lab, I can’t imagine teaching what they can learn here,” Elliott said.

Follow Jownsey’s adventures in the American skies on the UAARG blog.