The logo of the 2014 Drone Prize depicts a stylized quadcopter, which is the type of aircraft most closely associated with the hobby small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) movement. Its motor nacelles define four fields, each containing an icon that reflects a potentially beneficial application for this technology.
The top quadrant depicts a stalk of wheat on a green field, representing the use of drones in agriculture. According to the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), approximately 80% of sUAS deployed throughout the next decade with be used in precision agriculture, with the potential to increase crop yields by as much as one third.
Moving clockwise, the ubiquitous “PLAY” button is superimposed over a yellow field to represent the use of sUAS in film, television production, and journalism. Although still prohibited by the FAA, wildcat operators are already using this technology (with permission from the FAA) on major Hollywood pictures, including Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.
The bottom quadrant depicts a fire burning against a red field, reflecting the use of drones in public safety—especially the fire service. As demonstrated by the Roswell Flight Test Crew, sUAS have the potential to help save lives and minimize risks to first responders in scenarios as diverse as hazardous material spills, structural and wild land firefighting, and search-and-rescue operations.
Finally, the left quadrant features a globe on a blue field, representing the potential application of drones in commerce and humanitarian efforts—everything from Amazon’s fanciful “Prime Air” service to Matternet’s plan to use sUAS to deliver medicine and other vital supplies to remote communities in other countries.
Every student of aviation probably knows that on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. Even today, his accomplishment remains a defining moment in the history of flight. As a testament to that fact, his aircraft tail number, N-X-211, but better known as the Spirit of St. Louis, is on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C.
Much less well known is the fact that by achieving this feat, Charles and his backers claimed the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 cash award. It had been established two years earlier by New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig, who wanted to spur innovation in what was then still the nascent field of air travel. This was only 22 years after the Wright brothers had achieved sustained heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
Although such details tend to be lost in the shadows of history, outshone by the names and the deeds of the people that they inspired to greatness, awards such as the Orteig Prize have played a crucial role in the development of aviation throughout the past century.
It was within this tradition that the Cascade Chapter of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) established the Drone Prize in 2014 to recognize and encourage the use of hobby sUAS to benefit the community.
Entries were accepted from across the US, and three teams of finalists were selected to fly to Oregon and compete for the grand prize: a professional-grade multirotor system from Aerial Technology International (ATI).
Proving the Potential
Aimed squarely at sUAS hobbyists, Drone Prize entries required these enthusiasts to form a partnership within their community by identifying an organization—such as a nonprofit group or an agency of local government—that could benefit from their aircraft’s unique capabilities.
“There are many people who enjoy building and flying these systems, but we recognize that to reach the potential of the aerial robotics network, we need to get users engaged with local communities and applying the technology to solve real-world problems,” said Jonathan Evans, CEO of SkyWard, a commercial sUAS software platform and the lead sponsor of the Drone Prize.
“Out of all of the entries we received, I think the three finalist teams really understood this concept of drones for good and were able to demonstrate it effectively,” he added.
A group of students and their faculty advisor from Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, were selected as finalists after using an autonomous multirotor equipped with a high-definition video camera to plot the location and intensity of street lighting in the distressed Greenville neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Poe Mill.
“We want to see what it really looks like from the sky, and hopefully come up with a way for neighborhoods to map their streetlights and get a sense of how well illuminated their neighborhood is,” explained Mike Winiski, associate director of Furman University’s Center for Teaching and Learning.
Furman was represented in Oregon by students Chase Feidler and William Lewis, and professor John Conrad. Other members of the team included Mike Winiski, Taylor DeLench, Dante Durrman, Connor Chatterton, Steve Nelson, Mercia Calvin, and Jean Phelps.
A team calling itself Three Chicks and a Drone, from Scappoose, Oregon, was also selected to participate in the finals after partnering with a local watershed council on a habitat restoration project.
“We’re trying to help improve how the Duck Lake area connects to the main channel,” team member and environmental scientist Pat Welle explained. “We’re doing that with our drone, which gets a bird’s-eye view of the ponds, the wetlands, and how the water flows through the system.”
In addition to Pat, the other team members are Debbie Blackmore and Veronika Megler.
The third group selected to make the trip to Oregon was the G3 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Team from Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta.
“Our goal is to interest students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” said Gardner Chambliss, an engineer and the team’s volunteer mentor. “One of the ways that we do this is to give the students a challenge to study emerging technology, in this case UAVs, and apply it to real-world situations. In this case, we have chosen the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority Police Department.”
With Gardner’s guidance, the students have helped transit police look at how they could use sUAS to improve efficiency and help save lives by performing tasks ranging from perimeter patrol to bomb disposal.
The members of the G3 UAV Team who made the trip to the finals were Isabelle Carson, Sajjad Ali, and Gabriel Coopersmith, along with Gardner.
Regarding the groups selected to compete in Oregon, Jonathan said, “We were especially excited to see so many students at different levels coming forward to show off the capabilities that drones have to make the world a better place. I think this industry has a very bright future.”
Speaking Up for Drones
The competition got underway August 23, 2014, in the central Oregon town of Bend, located in the high desert east of the Willamette Valley—the narrow swath of towering evergreens and rich farmland that gives the state its reputation as a verdant, rain-soaked paradise. In fact, the state’s topography is predominantly arid, falling within the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains.
The three teams were the main attraction at the Bend Aerial Robotics Innovation Day, sponsored by semiconductor giant, Intel. The event brought together business and community leaders, teachers, and students, as well as enthusiasts, to discuss sUAS technology’s potential.
In the first round of the competition, each team was given 10 minutes on stage to describe its project. Afterward, the audience members voted for their favorite team, and a clear leader emerged: the G3 UAV Team.
This team had previously made presentations to the Georgia Society of Professional Engineers, and the group’s confident speaking style and in-depth knowledge of the subject won over the audience, which gave more votes to the students from Henry W. Grady High School than the other two teams combined.
Brian “Techinstein” Zvaigzne, a Drone Prize judge and member of the Roswell Flight Test Crew, said, “It’s easy to focus on the flying and the technology because that stuff is really cool, but I think it’s important to remember that everybody who is involved in this field today is also an ambassador for the sUAS community.
“It’s great to go flying and it’s even better to get results that can help people on the ground, but all of us have to be ready to explain that these aircraft are safe, that they aren’t going to be used for spying on people, and all of the beneficial applications that they can have. That’s why public speaking is such an important part of determining the winner of this competition.”
Drones were not merely a subject of idle curiosity for the audience. Oregon is emerging as a hotbed for commercial sUAS activity, having been awarded three separate drone test ranges by the FAA.
Mark Morrison is the executive director of SOAR Oregon, a nonprofit economic development organization that is helping lay the foundation for the fledgling industry. “Oregon has been dealt a very strong hand,” he told a rapt audience of business leaders during his keynote address. “In addition to the test ranges, we’ve got established businesses doing work in mobile software, high-tech imaging, and micro-device development, as well as aviation and advanced manufacturing.
“When you put all that together with the clear weather we enjoy year-round east of the Cascades and a skilled local workforce, you can see why we’re well positioned to take a leadership role in what will be a vibrant new industry over the next couple of decades.”
On the Flightline
The following day, the flying portion of the competition got started approximately an hour north of Bend on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation—home to one of Oregon’s test ranges. Overseen by a CD, the event was officially sanctioned by the AMA as a Class C Restricted competition.
Before the flying could get underway, the three teams had to solve a problem that wasn’t on the scorecard. Only one member of Three Chicks and a Drone, Debbie, was able to attend the event, and because FPV operations were an integral part of the competition, she couldn’t participate by herself. A spotter had to be found.
John, the professor from the Furman University team who is also a longtime AMA member, stepped forward and became an honorary “Chick” for the day, allowing Debbie to participate.
There were four flying events: a precision landing exercise, a simulated aerial survey of invasive species, a search-and-rescue drill, and an obstacle course. The performances were evaluated by a three-judge panel consisting of Rich Hanson, AMA’s Government and Regulatory Affairs director, Brian, and Patrick “Lucidity” Sherman of the Roswell Flight Test Crew. Patrick, the author of this article, also writes the “Advanced Flight Technologies” column for MA.
Each team completed the assigned tasks separately and was evaluated on its execution of the tasks, elapsed time, effective air crew communications, and safety, which was a determining factor in the selection of an overall winner for the Drone Prize.
Ahead of the search-and-rescue exercise, the teams were only told that they were supposed to locate a “lost hiker” in some nearby hills. All three teams successfully completed that task, but then the contest organizers had a surprise for them. A local firefighter arrived and asked to be shown the victim’s location.
Caught off guard by this unexpected development, the G3 UAV Team inadvertently moved its aircraft from the “hot” table on the flightline to the “cold” table in the pit area with the battery still connected and received low marks on the exercise as a result.
“You could see that they just got flustered,” Brian said. “It was an unfortunate mistake, but it's an easy one to make. For me, it really drove home the importance of having established safety protocols that you follow every single time you fly, whether it’s for fun, in a competition, or even in an actual emergency.”
And the Winners Are ...
The award ceremony was held the following day at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon. The Furman University team, which demonstrated superior airmanship and exemplary attention to safety throughout the competition, won first place and took home a fully equipped DJI S800 EVO multirotor as its prize.
Based on its outstanding performance at the Innovation Day in Bend, the G3 UAV Team was selected to receive the People’s Choice Award and received a 3D Robotics X8+, complete with a camera gimbal and a Go Professional travel case.
Three Chicks and a Drone, which came to be known as a “Three Chicks and a Professor and a Drone,” thanks to John Conrad’s sincere efforts on behalf of his adopted team, came in third and won a GoPro HERO3+ sports camera.
“In the end, I think the whole aerial robotics ecosystem was the winner coming out of this competition,” Jonathan Evans said. “These three teams, which are comprised of students and hobbyists, showed us that aerial robotics can be used to solve real-world problems in a safe and cost-effective manner. I congratulate and thank all of them for their hard work.
“Something very special got started here in Oregon this weekend. We’ll be back next year, and I’m already excited to see what new applications teams will show us.”