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Seven students from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Engineering are headed to the U.S. continent to participate in an international drone competition.

The 22nd annual Student Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) Competition will be held at St. Mary’s County Regional Airport in Maryland from June 25 to 27. The competition has two elements: the design and flight readiness presentation, and the mission demonstration. The presentation portion assesses a team’s UAS design and the team’s testing and preparedness, and the demonstration portion simulates a mission (consisting of autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, object detection and airdrop).

people working on a drone
Students working on the drone

More than 50 teams entered, and 36 qualified for the competition, including teams from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Czech Republic, Norway, Italy, Canada and the U.S.

This is the fifth year the UH Drone Technologies team is participating. Its best finish was 6th in 2017 (3rd among U.S. teams), and the team aims to place higher this year.

Leiolani Malagon Bracamontes Rodriguez, a senior mechanical engineering major, is the program manager for the 36-student team and is one of the seven students traveling to the competition.

“Just because we’re not from the mainland or we’re not from a bigger state, doesn’t mean that we don’t have brilliant minds here at UH,” Bracamontes Rodriguez said. “Being able to go and represent UH Mānoa and Hawaiʻi in general—because we’re the only one from Hawaiʻi going—it’s a great opportunity and we’re very fortunate.”

Carl Domingo, a spring 2024 computer engineering graduate who is also on the traveling team, will begin working as a nuclear engineer at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard following the competition.

“A lot of people should be proud of what we do,” Domingo said. “We don’t just build drones just for fun. There are some real-world applications of what we do.”

Importance of drones

drone flying in the air
Drone test flight

UAS, commonly known as drones, contribute to efficiency, safety and innovation across various sectors, including agriculture, construction, infrastructure inspection, emergency response, environmental monitoring, delivery services and more, Shiroma said.

“Unmanned aerial systems have been increasingly important,” said Wayne Shiroma, the team’s advisor and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering chair and professor. “Amazon has used them for package delivery. NASA is currently using UAS’s for wildfire detection. Essentially any time where it would be cheaper or safer to send an unmanned aerial system instead of a human, that’s where these UAS’s could come into play.”

Preparing students for careers

Shiroma said that participating in the competition will help students gain practical experience, problem-solving skills, and exposure to cutting-edge technology, preparing them for future careers in the rapidly evolving field of drone technology.

“It’s more than just the engineering, which itself is very complicated, because of the interdisciplinary nature of the project,” Shiroma said. “The students also have to raise their own finances, they have design review meetings, they interact with the sponsors of the project, so, all in all, it’s a fantastic opportunity for them to get a foothold to what they’re going to be experiencing out in the industry.”

—By Marc Arakaki

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