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Flying right on technology's edge

Robotic aircraft competition in the U.S. features student team from Delhi

Photo: AP

RESCUE BID: Team-members from the College of Engineering, Delhi, try to repair their craft at Fort Benning. Their four-propeller plane was damaged in transit.

FORT BENNING: As soldiers fired bursts from M-16 rifles at an urban warfare training site, a group of college students gathered on the edge of a small runway nearby to demonstrate the latest advances in aerial robotics, an emerging technology that could save lives in combat or natural disasters.

Some of the diminutive aircraft resembled the single-engine model planes flown by hobbyists on weekends, but they were packed with computer gadgetry, video cameras and satellite guidance systems. Others were miniature helicopters. And some were totally out of the box, such as a yellow, four-propeller craft resembling a hovercraft — a creation of students at the College of Engineering in Delhi.

All of them were programmed to accomplish their tasks on their own, without any remote-control manipulation by human controllers. They differ from other unmanned aircraft, such as the Predator and Global Hawk, which must be guided by people.

Sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International of Arlington, Virginia, the competition attracts college students from around the world who design and build the planes flown during the annual three-day competition at Fort Benning.

The association also sponsors robotics contests for underwater and ground vehicles. Organisers and team members said the technology could be used by the military to check areas that would be too dangerous for soldiers, to assess wildfires, to check for biological or chemical contamination and to locate victims of natural disasters.

Someday they may even be small enough to carry in police cars, giving officers a tool to check inside buildings during hostage situations, said organizer Robert Michaelson, a retired Georgia Institute of Technology engineering professor.

Teams have won about $400,000 (about Rs. 1.8 crore) in prize money during the 16 years of the competition. This year, $60,000 in prize money awaited the winners among the seven teams that planned to fly. Four other teams attended, but did not compete.

Ken Thurman, one of the judges from Front Royal, Virginia, said the competition attracts some of the world's brightest students who spend countless hours advancing the field of aerial robotics. "They don't know that what they're doing is supposed to be impossible. They just do it," said Mr. Thurman, a retired Air Force electronics warfare officer. "If we had industry do this, they would spend millions."

Mr. Michaelson said this year's goal was for the planes to locate a village 2 km away and find a particular building there. — AP

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