Engineers win at miniature airplane competition

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    By Sarah Bills

    A team of BYU student engineers earned awards at an international competition for their miniature airplanes that may help with military surveillance and forest fire control, among other things.

    Eleven BYU students and two professors competed with 20 teams from universities around the world at the Seventh International Micro Air Vehicle Competition in Florida, April 4 and 5.

    Most of the competitors came from schools around the United States, but a team from Germany and one from Korea also attended.

    Student engineers competed in areas of design, surveillance and endurance with tiny radio-controlled airplanes they designed and built. BYU placed first in design and surveillance and earned fifth in endurance.

    This area of research has applications other than competition, said Jerry Bowman, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, who accompanied the students.

    The U.S. military is using larger radio-controlled airplanes for surveillance purposes in Iraq, Bowman said. He said he hopes BYU”s research will allow the military to build smaller airplanes for less money.

    Similarly, satellites could send the airplanes to survey and gather information about Mars.

    Small, radio-controlled airplanes could also be equipped with humidity, temperature and wind sensors, and used to predict how quickly forest fires will spread and in what direction, he said.

    Bowman has also spoken with wildlife officials about using the planes as a way to track radio-collared animals, rather than using a full-sized plane.

    Bowman said he is looking for other legitimate applications for the airplanes. He also said he”s looking for research funding to support the project.

    The miniature planes consist of a motor, propeller, body structure, battery, radio receiver and servos (components that move control surfaces like the rudder and the elevator to turn the plane).

    Many of the airplanes can fit within the palm of a person”s hand and weigh about 10 grams, or the equivelent of four pennies.

    Batteries power the planes with an electric motor that turns the propeller. A pilot stands on the ground holding a joystick, controlling the airplane”s speed and direction. He sends a radio signal to control the airplane so it will climb and turn.

    Competitors use the lightest and smallest components possible to control their small planes effectively.

    In the surveillance event, competitors flew their airplanes with video cameras connected to them and took pictures of targets from one-third of a mile away. BYU”s 7-inch airplane was the smallest plane to take a recognizable picture.

    Many of the teams, including BYU, couldn”t take a clear picture because the video transmission had a lot of noise, Bowman said. The competition allowed teams multiple tries throughout the day, but most schools still couldn”t get a clear picture.

    BYU was the only school prepared with a backup video system, enabling them to get a good picture and win.

    With the endurance event, competitors try to keep the smallest airplane in the sky for the longest time.

    The BYU team ran into problems with radio interference for this event, but still flew the 4 1/2-inch plane for just under three minutes, placing fifth.

    Because the planes are so light, they usually bounce when they hit the ground. But competitors compete over grass to minimize damage anyway.

    “It”s like dropping a leaf,” Bowman said. “When it does fall to the ground, it doesn”t break.”

    BYU has attended the event for four of the seven years it has taken place. Last year, BYU earned first places for endurance and design and third place for surveillance.

    “I feel wonderful,” Bowman said. “They did an excellent job.”