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Tiny BYU-built planes soar in U.S. contest

BYU professors Randy Beard, left, and Tim McClain, right, in tie, and students show off one of their 3-pound surveillance planes. A video of the planes' daring maneuvers took the grand prize at the Infotech@Aerospace Video Competition, beating out several
BYU professors Randy Beard, left, and Tim McClain, right, in tie, and students show off one of their 3-pound surveillance planes. A video of the planes' daring maneuvers took the grand prize at the Infotech@Aerospace Video Competition, beating out several defense contractors. "We pushed the envelope," McClain says.
Jaren Wilkey/BYU

PROVO — Brigham Young University students are building small unmanned surveillance planes that could one day be used on the battlefield, in search-and-rescue operations or to track forest fires.

Last month, a five-minute video featuring the planes, which only weigh 3 pounds and have a wingspan of under 5 feet, won a national competition sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, beating out engineering teams from Boeing, NASA and Lockheed Martin, as well as teams from several universities, including Stanford and Georgia Tech .

In the video, the BYU-built planes, which look like boomerangs, fly inches above the ground, through tight canyons and within a breath of each other.

Tim McClain, a mechanical engineering professor who oversaw the project, said his students won the contest — the Infotech@Aerospace Video Competition — because they weren't afraid to take risks.

"We pushed the envelope. We put some pretty daring stuff on the video," he said. "We weren't afraid to try some risky things."

The BYU video featured more breathtaking maneuvers than their competitors, McClain said, because their planes were much cheaper than those built by firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

He said those firms also had a lot more on the line.

"These are a bunch of defense contractors competing for billion-dollar military contracts, so they wouldn't dare show a crash, even though everyone knows they happen all the time," he said.

McClain said he was surprised BYU won the grand prize at the competition, but some of his students weren't.

"I was pretty optimistic our entry would win," said Blake Barber, a first-year graduate student. Andrew Eldredge, another graduate student, said he thought their video would win at least one category.

"We knew there was a prize category for most spectacular event — success or failure," he said. "So we included a segment with some of our more dramatic crashes, thinking we might win that category, simply because we catch so many of our mistakes on film."

Largely due to the success of flying drones on the battlefield in Afghanistan and Iraq, the scientific and defense communities, as well as the public they serve, are becoming increasingly interested in high-performance, unmanned aircraft, McClain said.

He said BYU is at the forefront of this technology.

"Other groups are making good progress as well," he said. "To stay in front, we will need to keep pushing forward."


E-mail: jhyde@desnews.com