The Quad Raptors, a group of St. Mary’s neighborhood friends who formed their own independent team, won a regional quadcopter drone contest April 29 at Greenwell State Park in Hollywood, beating 11 other teams from Maryland and one from South Carolina.
Second place went to the Blue team from the St. Mary’s County Civil Air Patrol and third to the CAP Silver team, both sponsored by HTii of Lexington Park. An independent team from Rockville, MD came in fourth, and the Great Mills High School Hornets team was fifth.
“Hard practice and good fortune,” were the main reasons for the Raptors’ victory, said team mentor Bob Myers, a communications engineer at the UAS Test Directorate at NAS Patuxent River’s Webster Outlying Field. “We spent a lot of time flying waypoints with Mission Planner,” he said, referring to a software program used in the competition.
The top five regional winners will next compete in the National Search and Rescue Challenge August 19-20 at the Academy of Model Aeronautics headquarters in Muncie, Indiana. The AMA sponsors the events as part of its UAS4STEM program to stimulate interest among students in building and flying drone aircraft.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t finish first, but glad both our teams are going to the nationals,” said the CAP team’s assistant coach David Trick, an engineer for HTii. “We now have two years of competition under our belts, and we’ve added some experienced operators from the team that won last year’s regional.”
Last year’s regional winner was the now-disbanded TORCH homeschool team, which also was sponsored by HTii. Several members of that team joined this year’s CAP effort, including their former mentor, Navy flight test engineer Andy Pontzer, who now mentors the CAP Team.
All teams fly the same four-rotor Quadzilla unmanned aerial system in both the regional and upcoming national competition. The video-equipped, radio-controlled drone can be flown manually from a ground station or programmed to fly autonomously under the guidance of an onboard computer.
The full Quadzilla package – drone, training programs and competition registration – cost $2,500, according to Theresa Chase of the educational outreach office of the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division at Pax River. Most of the participants’ expense are covered by corporate donors; other costs were funded by the Patuxent Partnership, which has a separate quadcopter program under a grant from the Navy’s Office of Naval Research.
Teams competed in two flying events plus a preliminary Flight Readiness Review where they demonstrated how well they understood the engineering behind their aircraft.
For the airborne events, teams first had to program their aircraft for autonomous flight – to take off, fly to five specific waypoints in sequence, carry out a specified maneuver at each waypoint and come to a controlled landing – all without anyone at the controls.
“The maneuvers at the waypoints were added to make it more challenging for returning teams,” Pontzer noted. “We didn’t have to do that last year.”
The second flying event was to find five objects on the ground. “They were 4×4 pieces of plywood, and each had a letter on it,” Myers said. “The team had to find the GPS coordinates, identify the letters, and arrange them to spell out a word.”
The word was chord, he said, a line between the leading and trailing edges of an airplane wing. “They pulled it from their online flight school training.”
Myers noted that good communication between team members was “imperative” in all phases of the competition, “setting up for flight, launching and finding the objects.”
HTii’s Trick agreed. “We had some problems last year with team members getting conflicting advice from multiple sources,” he said. “Now it’s like NASA mission control – all information goes to the team lead, and he relays it to the appropriate team member.”
The UAS4STEM program was started by the NAWCAD educational outreach office in partnership with the AMA and St. Mary’s County Public Schools, Chase said. “The AMA then took the program last year and made it national.”
Chase along with Tara Stafford and Chris Martin ran the April 29 regional competition at Greenwell State Park on a field operated by the local Patuxent Aeromodelers Radio Control club.
The Patuxent Partnership held a separate quadcopter skills expo April 8 at Chopticon High School under its STEM4All program.
Looking ahead to the Quad Raptors’ trip to the national competition in August, Myers said, “It’s all up to the boys, but seeing how hard they worked for this effort, I’d say their chances look pretty good.”