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Queen’s students develop life-saving autonomous plane technology

Students at Queen’s University Belfast have been creating unmanned aircraft technology capable of delivering relief to disaster zones.

Teams from the MEng Aerospace Engineering degree programme were tasked with designing and building autonomously-controlled aircraft from scratch, which are capable of delivering two bottles of water and a medical kit to disaster victims using its own in-flight system.

The designs were put through their paces during test flights in County Antrim and two of the teams will now travel to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers UAS challenge in Wales from 15 to 18 June 2019 where they will be competing with other universities from throughout the UK and Europe.

Dr Joe Butterfield, lecturer from the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, who has been working closely with the students, said: “This project emphasises the need for our engineers to be multidisciplinary designers. It requires them to understand the implications of integrated design work and the difference between what the answers are when they complete their calculations and simulations, and what it actually is when you construct the final system.”

He continued: “Drones and drone design is a topical issue in general with the proliferation in systems for everything from delivery of consumer items to the inspection of oil lines and electrical systems, so our students will graduate from Queen’s, not only with a good grounding in the basic principles behind aircraft design, but also a wealth of knowledge when it comes to drone design.”

Professor Mark Price, Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, commented: “Design-build activities, such as this one, are integrated across all of our engineering degree programs, and we view this as absolutely vital to ensure our students get experience of working in a team, managing a budget, working with workshop staff, getting pieces manufactured and eventually assembling them. That not only allows them to achieve great things in the course of their study but also prepares them for a career in industry.”

Demand and applications for unmanned air systems has grown at an exponential rate in recent years and significant market opportunities exist for drone manufacturers and supply chain companies which provide specialised equipment that drones can carry.

Applications include accident reporting, crop monitoring, infrastructure inspection, mapping and surveying and humanitarian relief and there has been significant growth in investment in the sector. 

As precision guidance, autonomous operations, high-definition geocoded images and high-volume data processing all improve, drone usage will continue to proliferate. Companies like Amazon are planning for automated delivery systems and Rolls Royce are looking at the autonomous air taxi systems of the future.

Queen’s School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering integrates the development of remotely controlled and autonomous systems within its curriculum to ensure that their graduates are fully equipped to transition to the workplace and are fully equipped with the skillsets required to meet the demand for skilled engineers to drive the ongoing sectoral growth.