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Left to right: U of T Engineering students Oliver Wu, Andrew Ilersich, Erik Chau, Winston Liu, Kevin Dong, Kevin Xu, Rikky Duivenvoorden and Spencer Zhao. This team took first place at the Unmanned Systems Canada UAS Student Competition. (Courtesy: UTAT)

A U of T Engineering student team earned first place at the Unmanned Systems Canada Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Student Competition, held April 28 to 30 in Alma, Que.

The University of Toronto Aerospace Team’s (UTAT) UAV Division designed a two-drone system capable of meeting this year’s challenge: to survey and locate nests of three different types of geese in the remote Canadian wilderness. The teams were also asked to retrieve an egg from one of the nests to be tested for environmental contaminants.

“I was totally impressed with the incredible enthusiasm and wonderful talent of these young university students,” said David Bird, an ornithologist and professor emeritus at McGill University. Bird often uses drones in his own research and devised the challenge for this year’s competition. “It was a pleasure to be among them for the three days in Alma and I was thrilled that they were being challenged by my goose census and egg sample retrieval.”

“Retrieving the egg was particularly difficult,” says Rikky Duivenvoorden (EngSci 1T3 +PEY, UTIAS MASc 1T6), a safety pilot and technical advisor for UTAT’s UAV Division. “We’ve had to drop things before, but picking something up added a completely new dimension.”

The team created two separate vehicles: a fixed-wing UAV called UT-X2B to conduct the census, and a quadcopter called UTX-D to retrieve the egg. Both vehicles can fly to a specified location autonomously, using GPS to navigate and visual cameras to capture images of their targets. The robotic arm used to capture the egg, however, is operated manually.

Watch UTX-D’s robotic arm in action as it captures a goose egg during the Unmanned Systems Canada UAS Student Competition

While no team managed to capture the egg during their initial run, the organizers invited all teams to demonstrate their retrieval mechanism on the competition’s second day. Teams were also judged on how well their aerial surveys matched the known distribution of simulated geese on the ground.

“It’s always tense because while you can see how well the other teams are flying, you can’t see any of the problems that they are having behind the scenes in terms of processing the images,” says Duivenvoorden. “We were really surprised and happy when we won.”

A second team from UTAT’s Aerial Robotics division also placed well at the competition — their vehicle, UT Skyhawk, combines both fixed-wing and quad-copter components. It placed fourth overall and the team won the Judges’ Award for professionalism. Earlier this year, UTAT’s Aerial Robotics Division won the design phase of the competition, with the UAV division coming in second.

This is Duivenvoorden’s fifth and final turn at the competition. After finishing his master’s degree under the supervision of Professor Angela Schoellig (UTIAS) last fall, he’s now launching a startup company, Keystone Composites. The company will manufacture carbon-fibre components with a better strength-to-weight ratio than those currently available, and was directly inspired by the challenges the team faced in finding suitable materials for the drones in the competition. Keystone Composites is receiving support from Start@UTIAS, one of U of T Engineering’s two startup accelerators.

Duivenvoorden feels it’s just a matter of time before drones become even more prevalent in daily life. “From a technological standpoint, we’re basically there. From a regulatory standpoint, we have to share the airspace with manned aircraft, so it’s very important to make sure that we ensure safety for everyone,” he says. “As autonomous systems like ours continue to improve, that will become easier to do.”

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