URI engineering students win second consecutive national FAA competition

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Design of drone detection system takes top prize

KINGSTON, R.I. – June 10, 2015 – For the second year in a row, a team of University of Rhode Island engineering students has won first place in the University Design Competition for Addressing Airport Needs, sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The four students invented a drone detection and tracking system to address the problem of drones colliding with aircraft after entering the no-fly zones around airports. Using radio frequency identification tags, the students created a solar-powered system that not only alerts airport officials about approaching drones so pilots can be informed, but it also warns drone operators when their vehicles enter the no-fly zone.

Members of the winning URI team, all of whom earned degrees in mechanical engineering in May, are Krista Brouwer of Middletown, Thomas Cottam of Scituate, Catherine LiVolsi of Peace Dale, and Stephen Pratt of Coventry. They invented the system as part of their senior capstone design course. The yearlong course taught by Professor Bahram Nassersharif requires students to solve a real-world problem with a viable product.

“Because this is such a very new issue, there really aren’t any other ways that have yet been developed to address this growing problem,” said LiVolsi, who recently started a job at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. “So at the moment our project is one of the only methods to assist the FAA.”

“Our system provides a means for increased situational awareness for air traffic controllers and pilots to better understand when and where drones may be flying during the most critical parts of flight – takeoff and landing,” added Pratt, who is working toward a career designing rides at Disney theme parks around the world.

The team travels to Washington, D.C., on July 17 to present its invention – coined Eye in the Sky – to FAA officials. Team members will receive a $2,500 award for placing first in the competition.

Cottam is especially excited to have won the FAA competition, because his career objective is to work in the aerospace industry. “I chose this project because it dealt directly with the FAA and meant that I could work with airport officials and solve the problems they’re having,” he said.

The drone detection system is not the first capstone design project to attract attention. The URI students who won the FAA competition last year invented a collision avoidance system for planes on the ground at airports. The 5-pound device temporarily attaches to the wingtip with suction cups and monitors the tarmac area using ultrasonic sensors. When the plane approaches a nearby object, the system emits lights and sounds to warn of a potential collision.

URI students placed second and third in the competition in the previous four years.

Other inventions from recent capstone projects have streamlined the manufacturing process at Toray Plastics in North Kingstown, improved toys made by Rhode Island-based Hasbro and helped other Ocean State companies.

“Many of my capstone projects result in an invention or a solution that will result in a new product or process,” Nassersharif said. “I selected the FAA design competition for my capstone course and students because it focuses on current and challenging problems faced by our national aviation system and airports. This project is the top choice for some of my best students. I am very proud of these students.