Aerial Robotics

By Joey Goddard

WHILE COUNTRIES FROM around the world gathered in Atlanta to compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics, a different type of competition was taking place in Orlando, Fla., at Disney's EPCOT Center.

Twenty teams from universities in the United States, Canada and Europe entered the 1996 International Aerial Robotics Competition. The competition is usually held on the Georgia Tech campus, but because of Olympics preparations here, it was conducted at EPCOT on July 15 as part of Disney's "Space Week" celebration. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and various corporations, most of which are members of the Georgia Tech Corporate Liaison Program, sponsored the competition.

Each team's real world mission was to build a robot that could fly over a simulated toxic waste dump and map the location of fully exposed and partially buried barrels. The robots then had to identify the contents of the barrels by reading their labels, and conclude the mission by taking a sample from one of the barrels -- a small metal disk on top of a drum.

Helicopters (above left) and tailsitters (above) and were among the vehicles entered in this year's competition. The MIT team took top honors.

"This mission is of real interest to the DOE," explains Rob Michelson, competition organizer and a principal research engineer in the Georgia Tech Research Institute's Aerospace and Transportation Laboratory. "There are thousands of toxic waste dumps for which records no longer exist or are incomplete. Identifying the contents of these dumps is often dangerous work for humans and is better done by machines."

The team from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) took home top honors this year, completing the mapping and identification portion of the mission six times in an hour. While some of the other teams mapped the site or identified the barrels, no other team completed as much of the mission and no teams retrieved samples. For its efforts, the MIT team received $7,500 of the $10,000 prize.

Each autonomous flying robot entry had one hour to complete the mission.

"The vehicle has to know where it is and correct for things such as wind speed and direction," says Michelson. "To be fully autonomous, it cannot have any input from an operator while flying."

Teams also were judged on a technical paper documenting their project and team T-shirt design.

In previous competitions, the robots had to fly autonomously, pick up a metal disk, fly over a barrier and deposit the disk into another bin. Last year, Stanford University became the first team to accomplish this task. That led to changes in strategy this year . "In 1995, Stanford demonstrated advanced use of GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) navigation in their entry," Michelson says. "Because of their success, everyone incorporated GPS into their designs this year."

Michelson is impressed with the improvements competitors have made.

"The first year, just being able to fly was good," he explains. "Then the teams learned how to navigate. Each year, the standard moves higher."

The popularity of the contest grows every year, due in part to media attention from scientific publications and television shows such as "Scientific American" and "Discovery."

Michelson, the past president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, anticipates the competition will return to Tech next summer. The date has not been finalized.

Further information is available from Dr. Robert Michelson, Aerospace and Transportation Laboratory, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA 30332-0844. (Telephone: 770/528-7568) (E-mail: (WWW:



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Last updated: 27 Nov. 1996