Drones made by group of 25 students win international awards

July 19, 2019

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STUDENTS display their award-winning drones on Thursday.—White Star
STUDENTS display their award-winning drones on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: There were plane wings, helicopter blades, tails, fuselage scattered on the hangar floor at Pakistan Naval Eng­ineering College (NUST-PNEC) on Thursday. Meanwhile, Alpha and Beta, the pride of the team, had the place of honour on the wooden desk along with the many awards they secured for Pakistan, including the Grand Champion Award at the IMechE UAS Challenge 2019 competition held recently at the Snowdonia Aerospace LLP in Wales, UK.

NUST Airworks, a group of some 25 undergraduate students from mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, industrial and mechanical engineering departments of the college, recently returned with five of the 10 awards up for grabs at the international competition for their drones Alpha, which they also call Nasr, and Beta, which they also call Uqaab.

Alpha or Nasr is a fixed-wing drone and Beta or Uqaab is the first-ever autonomous helicopter drone unveiled at the IMechE UAS Challenge 2019.

The NUST Airworks team was participating there alongside 34 other international teams, including teams from the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada and Sri Lanka.

The 25 students from Pakistan broke themselves into two sub-teams — one worked on Alpha, calling itself NUST Airworks Alpha, and the other worked on Beta, calling itself NUST Airworks Beta.

Minhaj Haider, the electrical lead for the teams, said that he had just graduated from NUST-PNEC but they started work on the drones some three years ago in 2016. “Most of us were freshmen at the time,” he said. “In 2017, we participated in various national competitions and won several awards including the Best Electrical Aircraft at the Propellair-16 competition at NED University, the Game of Drones at NERC at NUST EME, etc.

“Then last year [2018] we took part for the first time in international skies,” he added.

They were declared the number one team among the first timers and also got the Highest Placed New Effort Award as well as the Media Engagement Award at the IMechE UAS Challenge 2018.

And this time at the IMechE UAS Challenge 2019 they again got the Media Engagement Award along with the Business Plan Award, the Safety and Air Worthiness Award and two Scrutiny Awards to be declared the overall grand champions.

Fatima Shafique, the team member handling their marketing side, said that it was great to have bagged so many awards but they were not really aiming at getting awards. “We work in a research programme. Our real aim is progress for Pakistan,” she said, adding that the IMechE UAS Challenge is being held for five years now and their helicopter drone has been the only helicopter drone there in all these years. “We are always striving to do something new and something better,” she added.

Mohammad Faizan Khan, one of the two mechanical designers, said that in the 25 team members they had students from all their eight semesters. He himself is an eighth semester student while the other mechanical designer Saad ur Rehman is a fifth semester student. “Getting the hardware together took us three to four months and designing the software took another three to four months followed by tests and more tests,” said Faizan.

Saad added: “We had to test the drones for endurance, we had to test them for range, we had to fly them in various conditions, we had to test them for speed and we had to check if they could carry their payload. They also needed to have a maximum takeoff mass of 6.9kg. They can fly 110km/h.”

He said that when testing the drones they were faced with a challenge as to where to go to test them. “There are no proper areas here where you are allowed to fly drones. You need to get proper permission to fly at airfields and other testing areas. You also need a proper 30-metre runway. But the helicopter didn’t need a runway and we tested it inside our college. Obviously the fixed wing or plane drone needs takeoff and landing space but the rotary drone is suitable for all conditions and is good for all terrains.”

Saad was also happy to report that both the drones are completely detachable making it easy to be carried in their luggage. “Both the drones have fibreglass bodies and electric propulsion mechanisms with servo actuated control systems.

Meanwhile Fatima said that they also had difficulty in acquiring many of the parts. “There were issues with Customs when importing the parts and the difference in currency rates was also a problem,” she said.

Minhaj explained that the drones can be used as disaster relief vehicles and they can be used for autonomous payload delivery. “We also demonstrated their carrying a first aid kit and two water bottles at the IMechE UAS Challenge this time,” he said while adding that they had also been designed for area search or reconnaissance with an onboard camera with onboard processors. “That way they can look for signs of human life and transmit locations,” he said.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2019