From Drone Racing to Autonomous Swarms: How Northeastern’s Aerospace Club is Developing Aerial Robotics
In Fall 2017, then-freshman engineering students John Buczek, Noah Ossanna, Blake McHale, Joshua Field, Michael Tang and Ryan Lung were eager to take the combination of their personal interests and studies further in their roles as members of Northeastern’s Aerospace club: Aerospace NU.
They turned to Aerospace NU to propose a new subset of projects, titled initially as Learn to Fly and currently as Northeastern Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (NUAV). In comparison to the club’s existing rocketry projects, their division was initially focused on competitive drone racing. Student pilots used video goggles paired to on-board cameras on their drones, giving a first-person view as they navigate complex courses at high speeds. Now, NUAV has evolved into a research-oriented task force, building their own drones and payloads to support autonomous search and rescue missions.
“NUAV began by teaching students to build and fly racing drones, an initiative called Learn to Fly in Spring 2018,” said principal hardware lead Ossanna, BS/MS ‘22, mechanical engineering, on the project’s inception. “We officially rebranded under NUAV the following fall in support of our emerging research projects alongside the established racing team.”
Now NUAV supports around 45 members with backgrounds in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering as well as computer science. Faculty advisor and professor in the College of Engineering, Andrew Gouldstone serves as the advisor to Aerospace NU, much to the content of NUAV’s leadership who raves about his passionate involvement.
“I want to point out that none of us knew anything about what we were doing when we started this,” said Ryan Lung, BS‘22, computer engineering/computer science, on the groups progress since their early days. “We had no substantial experience with drones when we brought this project to Aerospace NU.”
Building from their foundations in racing, NUAV’s members started developing custom mechatronic payloads and autonomous drones in Fall 2018. Their projects have come a long way since then with a current focus on a project dubbed Swarm Carrier: to rapidly deploy swarms of drones for search and rescue missions. For this, student members are developing custom algorithms, drones, and mechanisms to support deployments of smaller drones from a carrier mothership.
“We started out about 12 months ago trying to learn how to really incorporate autonomy, but not just ‘go to this GPS waypoint,’ but why are you going there?” said Ossanna. “We had figured out the how, which was the mechanical aspect of building the drone, but we wanted to figure out the why. We spent a good portion of last fall trying to facilitate that gap so we could support testing algorithms for missions.”
The move towards autonomy has not deterred the club from continuing to excel in drone racing as well, with members Pedro Caceres and Ossanna competing in last year’s Nationals within a field of the top 300 globally qualified pilots. After the three-day competition, the pair placed 23rd and 89th, respectively.
“We still have the racing aspect because that’s where most people get started as freshmen. They develop and learn more about drones and they start becoming incorporated into other research projects,” said principal electronics lead, John Buczek, BS/MS’21, electrical engineering. “That’s really the typical route, though there are some people that definitely just jump right in, but the majority of people start through racing.”
Looking forward, the club hopes that NUAV will continue to grow as graduation looms near for many of its leading members.
“We’re always are looking for continuation, so we want to, of course, achieve our goals in terms of deliverables, like making a drone that can fly a certain way or carry a payload,” said Buczek. “But we’re also looking to make our project continue even after us because we’re the first wave, really. When we graduate, we want to make sure that there’s a leadership structure and a desire to build things once we’ve gone.”