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More aircraft fly than ever before at 10th anniversary UAS Challenge

Joseph Flaig

The Loughborough University team's aircraft flies high during the IMechE UAS Challenge (Credit: UAS Challenge/ Jam Butty)
The Loughborough University team's aircraft flies high during the IMechE UAS Challenge (Credit: UAS Challenge/ Jam Butty)

More aircraft flew than ever before at this year’s UAS Challenge thanks to increasingly enthusiastic and engaged participants, according to a key member of the competition team.

The event’s 10th anniversary was “the best we’ve had”, said chief scrutineer Rod Williams to Professional Engineering, despite some challenging weather at BMFA Buckminster in rural Leicestershire last week (1-4 July). 24 teams took part, with 16 successfully flying their unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in simulated humanitarian missions.

Williams said the drones, designed and built by student teams from British and international universities, were in better shape than ever. Previous years have seen aircraft arriving “in various stages of undress” before being put together, he said, but this year many were already flight-tested and proven.

More support from universities, which are increasingly building it into degree schedules, and IMechE – which ran webinars explaining each phase of the project – explains why teams are better prepared, Williams said. There is also more enthusiasm from students, he added, thanks to word-of-mouth from previous participants and increased understanding of how useful the competition can be for aerospace careers.

“From every aspect there's more engagement, we’re much more used to it and they’re much more engaged, and joining in greater numbers,” he said.  

Durable designs

Increasing focus on the competition’s endurance element is driving teams towards more fixed wing bases, Williams said, which involve more technical design than simple quad- or hexacopters. 17 designs were pure fixed wing, one was a helicopter, and six were VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) tilt-wings or hybrid aircraft. The team from the Estonian Aviation Academy even had a ‘Flying V’ blended wing design.

Innovation is “nice to have” but effective operation is the paramount concern, said Williams. “It's putting things together well that are simple, that makes it more effective, and makes it deployable to an NGO (non-governmental organisation) somewhere out there… can they put it together in the simplest way and get it flying as soon as possible?”

Teams put some good thought into that this year, he said, including a focus on maintainability. The Belfast team, for example, used a modular design that allowed them to remove the avionics bay, giving easy access to internal electronics.

The winning team from Beihang University in China was “very organised,” Williams said. “When they were putting it together there were nine of them, but they were coordinated, controlled, with someone doing quality checks.”

He added: “It was two-prop, V-tail, high-wing, but it was quite pretty really… it wasn't just botched together, the quality of what they did was very good, and they scored, clearly, very highly on the missions. They were very quick through it.”

‘Quality will keep improving’

Looking ahead after a successful decade, Williams predicted that the next 10 years will bring more tilt VTOL capability thanks to the continuing focus on humanitarian missions and endurance.

More teams will introduce autonomous flight control systems, he said, something that “only a handful” managed to integrate successfully this year. Other changes could include increasing use of carbon fibre.

“I think the quality of the product that they design, the quality of the platform, will keep improving,” he added. “They are now actually coming up with very tidy, sleek designs – something that you could almost put in a pretty box and sell very readily. And in fact two or three of the teams have already got orders.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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