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Making the SQuAD: Santa Clara Quadrotor Autonomous Drone

For Senior Design students, an important step in completing their project is just knowing when it is time to stop designing and start building. Mechanical engineers Jacob Adams, Peter Baumgartner, Mark Johnson, and Mike McCormick reached that conclusion while working on an autonomous uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) known as The SQuAD: Santa Clara Quadrotor Autonomous Drone. “The challenge in finalizing a design is knowing when to stop. As students, we have lots of free time to make tons of iterations, but the point came when we had to move ahead,” said Mike.

From left, Mike McCormick, Mark Johnson, Peter Baumgartner, and Jacob Adams
Photo: Heidi Williams

While quadrotor UAVs are not new, these Broncos, under the direction of assistant professor Mohammad Ayoubi, are pushing the design specifications to the limit—creating a vehicle that is larger and heavier than previous UAVs. “Our mission is to have a long flight time, we want a camera on board, and the vehicle must be stable in flight, so the quad has to be bigger to hold all the components. Our structure is expected to be more stable, rigid, and durable than anything commercially available now,” said Mike.

To meet these building requirements, the team determined Dibond, an aluminum composite, would best suit their needs. “Dibond sandwiches a thermoplastic core between two aluminum sheets. It’s strong but light, so it keeps the weight of the vehicle down which helps flight time and stability,” said Peter.

While Peter and Mike are working on the design and build of the frame, Jacob and Mark are focused on the UAV’s control system. “Anyone who searches the Internet can put together a quadrotor that can be flown with a remote control,” said Mark, “but we’re taking it to the next level by making the UAV fly itself.” To do that, the pair is programming a National Instruments RIO device to communicate with the accelerometer, gyros, rangefinder, barometer, and GPS. “It’s rarely been done to use this flight board to control a UAV, so we’re helping to develop something new. It is a powerful tool with field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) that are programmable to do one particular thing, such as take in sensor data and perform calculations based on inputs to aid stabilization, so it does it very fast. With all the programming happening onboard, it frees the user to spend more time on decisions such as attitude or location.”

With their yearlong project complete, Baumgarner and Adams hope to continue their studies in aeronautics after graduation, while McCormick wants to design for a living. Johnson will enter the graduate program at SCU, taking this project in a new and more technically advanced direction. For each, the Senior Design project has given them an opportunity to explore their interests in a manner that Adams likens to an internship experience.