To see the future of drones, look to student competitors

NDSU engineering student Brady Goenner explains the design of a drone.
At North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D., on April 6, engineering student Brady Goenner explains the design of a small drone the students will enter in an international robotics competition this summer.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

If you want a glimpse of a maybe not-so-distant future where drones deliver our packages and pizzas, you might want to watch a handful of students from the region who are preparing for an international robotics competition this summer.

The contest challenges them to build a drone that can avoid obstacles and make decisions on its own, a trick that Brady Goenner has been working on at North Dakota State University.

"Kind of the real challenge is getting that sensor interface reliable enough," the senior explained as he maneuvered a four-propeller drone that's about 3 feet wide around a conference room.

Goenner keeps his hands on the flight control, but for the International Aerial Robotics competition in July this drone will need to fly relying only on sensors it carries, and a computer program.

Goenner, a senior in mechanical engineering from Clear Lake, Minn., is part of a 10-person team developing a drone for the competition. In addition to the NDSU team, students from Carleton and St. Olaf colleges in Northfield will compete at the event in Atlanta.

The NDSU drone will use cameras, ultrasonic sensors and radar to know where it is. For this competition the drone can't rely on any external guidance system, like GPS or remote control.

It will have to maneuver inside a large auditorium where it'll need to sense robots moving randomly across the floor.

"It can go to to these robots and like tap them and then be able to control them and force them to go into the desired path," Goenner said. "That's part of the competition, so being able to kind of go to these robots and control them and kind of herd them into the direction we want them."

Engineering student Brady Goenner tests a small drone he helped design.
NDSU students plan to compete in an international robotics competition where the drone will need to be completely autonomous using sensors and a computer program to perform tasks without human assistance.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

This is more than just geeks playing with cool toys.

"It really is kind of the 5- to 10-year out technology, and certainly I think they're technologies that a lot of companies would like to have right now," said Jeremy Straub, an assistant professor of computer science and the drone team adviser.

He says the students will struggle to solve some real-world problems and create a drone that can make decisions on the fly in a constantly changing environment.

"Anything from going into a disaster area after something bad has happened, or logistics applications where your Amazon delivery drone needs to be able to operate even if you know all of the remote things are no longer able to service it," Straub said.

That's a key challenge for delivery drones. What happens if external controls or guidance systems fail? Can the drone sense its environment, make the right decision and react safely on its own?

Straub said industry is working on those challenges, but the student competition often results in finding another piece of the technology puzzle. No matter how the team fares in the competition, he said they're likely to earn points with future employers.

"They have real problems and they're hiring somebody that can look at those problems ... and figure out and implement a solution," he said. "So this type of activity shows those employers that they actually have the very tangible real world skills that are not necessarily the easiest thing to demonstrate in the classroom environment."

Goenner says it's rewarding to put his engineering and computer skills to work.

"I've really enjoyed being able to see something tangible working so that's what's exciting to me," he said.