By Brian Hudgins

The U.S. Air Force and the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) have teamed up to give problem solvers on campus the tools to provide San Antonio residents and people throughout the country some added safety and security.

Through a $486,000 grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, UIW put its Autonomous Vehicle Systems (AVS) Research and Education Laboratory into operation. Both current students and alumni are able to learn about engineering technology connected to autonomous ground robots and air vehicles. The AVS lab is unique in that autonomous ground and air vehicle research is being performed to investigate cooperative behavior.

“There is an education component that introduces students to unmanned vehicle systems,” said Dr. Michael Frye, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering. “There is also a research mission to develop new technologies to control autonomous vehicles. The Air Force has an interest in making sure we have students who have a fundamental background in and have been exposed to it.”

That exposure to AVS technology includes the use of a combination of ground robots and air vehicles that are referred to by names such as Qball. The Qball’s interior equipment is encased in a metal cage so it does not get damaged. The machines receive signals that direct them to complete missions such as moving material for disaster or famine relief. One major question being answered is: How do we get multiple ground and air robots to communicate, cooperate and complete a mission without an operator in the loop?

Alumni AVS elevated angle

Alumni Jonathon Castillo (left) and John Acton (right) review the technical manual for the Qbot, one of the autonomous ground vehicles utilized by AVS research.

UIW undergraduate students, as their Senior Design Project, are using the air vehicles and a ground vehicle called Robotino to work on finding solutions. Michael Tate and Sarah Johnson are both scheduled to graduate in December with degrees in engineering management. Johnson also uses her decision-making and problem-solving skills on the soccer field as a midfielder for the women’s soccer team and Tate was a four-year starter with the football team. “You can control the Robotino manually through a controller that is like an Xbox controller, but you can also give it certain commands (through the system) like – don’t hit a wall,” Johnson said.

The university has been able to utilize the equipment within senior-level classes. “It’s always a challenge to integrate something like this into a curriculum and try to come up with ideas on how to put it into a class,” Frye said. “For senior design – it adds new ideas and possibilities.” Those brand new tools have created an added level of excitement for students. “New things are always fun to get to learn and know,” Tate said. “I thought it was cool that we could use something as common as an Xbox type controller to control it manually.”

The AVS lab is allowing graduate research opportunities for UIW alumni engineers. Jonathon Castillo ’13 BS is currently enrolled in the electrical engineering graduate program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). He is working on forming a thesis for his master’s program and familiarizing himself with the unmanned aerial vehicles research. It is a team effort of working with his peers. “The undergrads have started to work on it and we know how they work,” Castillo said. “I have been reading up on the manuals and quick start guides.” The team in the lab did hit a small snag when they found out that some of the manual and guide material was written in German and had to be translated – which caused a few good-natured giggles.

Design Team - Crop to not shoe their sandals

Frye (center) and senior engineering management students Michael Tate and Sarah Johnson pose with autonomous air vehicles at a flight training session.

In addition to that collaboration between graduate students and undergrads, Frye has set up summer camp workshops to enable local high school students to get a grasp of the technology on a more basic level. John Acton ’13 BS, now enrolled in UTSA’s graduate program, assisted with some of the older equipment last year. “I helped out with a summer camp in 2013,” Acton said. “We had high school students tackle problems. This new equipment is a great opportunity. Dr. Frye is great at helping with any troubleshooting.”

Frye said the benefits gained by UIW students will be notable. “This is typically not available to undergrads at the state schools,” Frye said. “It is usually a master’s or Ph.D. domain. This will allow UIW students to publish papers at the undergraduate level, which makes them more marketable (to grad schools and potential employers).”

As the reach of autonomous research has gradually expanded during the last decade or two to include robot use during medical procedures and product development, Frye noted that people of all ages can see the advantages. “A lot of the benefits of autonomous research show up in the safety of aircraft and cars. But it even helps to keep loads balanced in washing machines.”