Flying robots on the up and up

By September 30th, 2010

The fourth Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Outback Challenge, held in Kingaroy in regional Queensland this week, saw teams come within a whisker of scooping the $50 000 top prize.

Ten teams from the US, Brazil, Holland and Australia designed and built their own UAVs to qualify for the search and rescue event.

After testing, two teams were left to attempt the challenge of locating a fictional missing character, a mannequin dubbed ‘Outback Joe’ sitting a few kilometres from the airport, and delivering him a water bottle – all of it autonomously: no pilots, no remote control.

A team from the University of North Dakota in the US came the closest anyone has ever come to completing the challenge. They successfully located Outback Joe, only to accidentally drop their water bottle too early. They won a $15 000 encouragement prize.

“This is the best year so far,” said CSIRO’s Dr Jonathan Roberts, event co-founder and head judge of the Challenge. “The teams were even more professional and the level of safety they displayed was exceptional. Hopefully next year they’ll make that drop to Joe.”

A member of the winning team, Danny Hajicek, said the team was happy with the result.

“We’re disappointed about the small technical difficulty over the drop but a thousand and one other things could have gone wrong and didn’t.”

“The teams were even more professional and the level of safety they displayed was exceptional.”

Dr Jonathan Roberts

The Robota team, also from the US, made it into the area in which Joe was located before a communications failure saw their UAV abort its mission – they won $5000.

Eight high school teams competed to fly an aeroplane by remote control and drop a chocolate bar to Outback Joe, this time sitting within the bounds of the airport. However, the pilots couldn’t see the aircraft, and had to rely on signals, including video, beamed back to them.

The Calamvale Hornets from Calamvale Community College in Queensland picked up $5000 for dropping the chocolate right between Joe’s legs.

Latitude 38, a two-man team from Melbourne, also won $5000 for making the best documentary charting their experience of preparing for the challenge.

The Outback Challenge is organised by ARCAA, the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (a joint venture of CSIRO and Queensland University of Technology), the Queensland State Government and Aviation Development Australia Limited.

Hear Dr Roberts talk about the Challenge in Outback Joe ‘almost saved’ by flying robots (Podcast 8 Oct 10).

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