July 29, 1999 Vol . 15, No. 8

Aerial robotics group flying high

Two years into a three-year international aerial robotics competition, the Simon Fraser University aerial robotics group is still flying high after earning the second-highest number of cumulative points this year behind a German team from Technische Universitaet Berlin.

"We're first in North America, though," says Pavel Haintz (above), the indefatigable SFU grad student whose team came first last year with a unique, robotic airship.

The purpose of the competition, held in Richmond, Washington, is to demonstrate the difficult feat of autonomous flight while mapping out a disaster area and searching for and identifying 'bodies'. Twelve universities competed, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Waterloo and the University of British Columbia.

This year, the SFU team scrapped their airship concept and instead built a remote controlled airplane for the competition, pairing it with a souped up Yamaha all-terrain vehicle that could search for bodies spotted from the air.

Haintz and his team, which has grown to 15 students from engineering and three students from computer science, required a pickup truck and two vans to transport their equipment, which included six networked computers, video equipment, an ultrasound system, custom-designed vision and command and control software and a global positioning system.

"Only the Berlin team succeeded in autonomous flight,'' says Haintz. "Our airplane had a bunch of problems, so we didn't attempt autonomous flight. Now we have a full year of testing ahead of us, to make sure our system is reliable for next year."

Next year is the final year of the competition, when autonomous flight must be demonstrated in order to win. "The real competition that matters is the year 2000 -- anything can still happen. We could come in first or at the bottom, its still wide open," says Haintz."

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