x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Students' work soars ... without a pilot

At the American University of Sharjah, a group has been exploring the construction and use of lightweight pre-programmed aircraft.

Sahand Tajerzadeh, an engineering student, assembles an unmanned aerial vehicle at the American University of Sharjah.
Sahand Tajerzadeh, an engineering student, assembles an unmanned aerial vehicle at the American University of Sharjah.

SHARJAH // The lightweight aeroplane has a maximum altitude of several hundred metres, can perform aerobatic manoeuvres and touch down for a perfect landing at the point where it took off. But the most unusual feature of this craft, created by students in Sharjah, is what it is missing: a pilot at the controls.

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is programmed before it takes flight and operates autonomously. Built at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), it is among the first of its kind made by students in the region, produced amid a growing demand for self-operating aircraft. "This one takes off and flies by itself and doesn't need any human interference," said Dr Ameen el Sinawi, an associate professor at the AUS school of engineering, who oversees the creation of UAVs.

"The students worked really hard on it; sometimes they stayed up until three o'clock in the morning. The autopilot can be bought for Dh2,000 (US$545), but putting it together, that's the difficult part." The latest UAV to come out of the School of Engineering is a 500g aircraft made of balsa wood, glue, wires, a tiny electric motor and a plastic propeller. With its wings removed and its bundle of wires exposed, this tiny plane looks like something a teenage model enthusiast knocked together in his garage over the weekend. But the modest appearance belies the effort and expertise put into the machine.

Using GPS co-ordinates, the students can programme the aircraft's flight path on a laptop that communicates with the plane's sensors. In flight, the aircraft travels along a series of way points, maintaining a pre-programmed speed, altitude and attitude. Sensors attached to the aircraft's side detect pitch and roll, which the autopilot uses to adjust the speed and altitude. The aircraft can fly as high as 400 metres and up to 2km from the control station without losing contact.

An operator is always on hand to take over in case of computer error so the plane can be brought back under manual control . One of the most important engineering problems has been how to keep the aircraft's weight down, said Ahmadreza Bahrami, 25, an Iranian in the fourth year of studying for a mechanical engineering degree. With this in mind, lightweight balsa has been used for most of the structure.

The wings are a skeleton of 22 pieces of balsa covered with a thin sheet of material. The two wings can be removed together to give the students access to the plane's innards. "When you have size and other constraints, you have to get lots of parts and stick them together," Mr Bahrami said. "That has been a bit hectic. When you try it and something goes wrong, you need to be very careful to break pieces apart and glue them back together."

Students working under Dr el Sinawi have previously bought a remote-controlled aircraft and converted it into a programmable UAV, but the balsa plane is the first UAV made from scratch by his students. They hope to add a camera to the aircraft so it can take pictures and carry out the kind of monitoring work for which UAVs are increasingly being used. "The thinking is to have an infrared camera because then if there's an earthquake, you can detect human bodies," says Gautham Nagaraj, 23, a fourth-year computer engineering student.

UAVs were first developed for military purposes, but have been adapted to many civilian applications, such as monitoring power lines and traffic flows, and safeguarding power plants. The importance of UAVs, according to Dr el Sinawi, is becoming increasingly recognised in the Gulf region, as the aircraft can be sent on monitoring missions deep into the desert."They can go to places that are hazardous to humans," he said. "It's very low-cost, but very practical."

Dr Mohammad al Jarrah, head of AUS's department of mechanical engineering, said adapting UAVs to civilian purposes represented "a paradigm shift". "They can be used for the surveillance of high-value targets," he said. "If you have a power plant and you want continuous surveillance, you can use one of these. They have also been used for monitoring the environment and could be used for monitoring pollution."

They could also prove useful for building work as their images can be used to create three-dimensional reconstructions of a site to determine how much soil has to be excavated, Dr al Jarrah said. "You can estimate this very, very accurately using this technology." Dr al Jarrah has been working on UAVs since 1991, and this year was awarded a Dh200,000 grant from the Emirates Foundation to perfect the navigational devices that control the aircraft.

The grant came two years after a group working under him completed what is thought to be the first student-built UAV in the region. In September, Dr al Jarrah and his students will enter a UAV in a search-and-rescue contest in Australia, in which entrants will deploy the aircraft to track down a simulated missing person. "We're producing [the UAV for the competition] now," he said. "We need to add the capability of this aircraft being able to carry a package of about 3kg of water or whatever and it needs to be delivered within 30 feet of the person."

dbardsley@thenational.ae