UC Merced Drone Team soars to new heights
By Patty Guerra
After seven months of working for hours each weekend to design, build and fly a drone, it all came down to a nervous moment for UC Merced students taking part in a worldwide competition.
Their drone had to be suspended between two poles and held together while weight was placed inside it.
“We were a little bit nervous,” said team member Alex Minton. “We didn’t have the best luck with our prototypes.”
But the team’s drone held up, though there was some concerning creaking at one point, the team members said.
UC Merced placed 35 th out of 81 universities worldwide at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) 27 th annual Design/Build/Fly (DBF) Competition. It’s the highest placement for UC Merced in the university’s history.
“It’s a great win,” said Professor YangQuan Chen, faculty mentor for the AIAA UC Merced Student Branch, who directs the university’s Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab.
Drone teams from 14 countries, including 27 states and the District of Columbia, took part in the 2023 DBF competition. This year’s field was the largest the competition has ever seen, with 868 university students on 81 teams taking part in Tucson, Ariz. UC Merced’s team edged out the University of Notre Dame, and scored ahead of Purdue, the University of Cairo and Columbia University, among others. The fly-off event was hosted by Raytheon, an AIAA corporate member.
Competitors designed, built and tested unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct surveillance missions for electronic warfare. Each year, the competition features different missions, and the teams must fly their drones along a course.
Many of the team members are mechanical engineers. In addition to the drone competition, several of them volunteer at the Castle Air Museum, near their lab.
For first-year student Vishruth Adoni, his passion for flying came early.
“My uncle builds planes,” he said. “That led to my interest in aeronautics.”
For Angel Fuentes, his interest started a little closer to the ground.
“(Former Society of Automotive Engineers club member) Matt Vanizen first introduced the project, as I had enjoyed working on cars,” Fuentes said. “Unfortunately, SAE was out of commission at the time, and I wanted to join a project where I could build something with my hands.”
David Millet said he signed up because he liked planes, and once he attended a meeting, he enjoyed the environment.
And team members Alejandro Lailson and Edgardo Benito credited Minton with their introduction to DBF.
Lailson said he had a longtime love of planes and really enjoyed the team. Benito, like Fuentes, initially was more interested in cars.
“During my freshman year, I joined SAE because I wanted to work for Tesla,” he said.
A social media post he saw from Minton impressed Benito.
“DBF/AIAA is the best place to get experience compared to other clubs,” Benito said.
Other members of the team are Albert Trinh, Jair Martinez, Mikel Josue, Antonio Garcia, Alex Hartzler, Angel Jauregui, Chris Jimenez and David Gutierrez.