Students achieve world-record breaking drone flight

9 December 2015

A team of aerospace students from the University of Sydney have helped break a world record by landing a drone in Texas using a remote control joystick located in Sydney.

AIRUS team in laboratory drone flight

From left: Record-breaking aerospace students Robert Robinson, Tristan Heywood, Jeremy Cox (centre) Oscar Fawkes and Zitong Liu.

The feat, which has never been attempted before, was achieved in tandem with student collaborators from Texas A&M University in the United States, who simultaneously operated a drone in the University of Sydney’s laboratory.

Despite being located on the opposite side of the world, the students from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies used the internet to control a quadrotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) located in Texas.

Not only was this the first international attempt to use the internet as a drone control portal, it was also the longest distance ever successfully reached for a non-military remote controlled drone flight, with the two teams separated by 13,000 kilometres.

The record was attempted as part of the Aerial International Robotic Racing of Unmanned Systems (AIRUS) competition on Sunday 6 December.

Both teams set out to see how difficult it would be to control an aircraft on the other side of the world, using software including Mission Planner and Google Hangout to communicate with their international teammates.

University of Sydney team spokesperson Jeremy Cox said the nail-biting experience wasn’t all plain sailing, with the teams encountering unpredictable flight conditions due to the great distances involved.

"It all went fairly smoothly but there were some challenges with the signal delay, which makes it difficult to control," said Jeremy, a combined Aeronautical (Space) Engineering and Science student.

"Our video signal came from a camera mounted on the flying hardware in Texas, and that was sent to us in Sydney and vice versa."

The successful internet-driven drone piloting opens up new possibilities for long distance drone flights in the future, said Jeremy.

"Most non-locally controlled UAVs today are operated via satellite systems, which are much less accessible systems than those controlled over the internet. This breakthrough flight has potential applications for telepresence, which will allow operators to sense and respond at long range."

The student's next challenge is to have the long distance flight registered in the Guinness Book of Records.

"It's very exciting to be able to say, 'I've flown in Texas'," said Jeremy. "It was a really fantastic learning experience for us as students at the University of Sydney. The hands-on learning we receive here is fantastic but you can never have too much of it."

The AIRUS competition was supported by the School of Aerospace, Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and the ASTRA Lab at the University of Sydney, and by the ASTRO Lab and the CANVASS Lab at Texas A&M University.