The 8th Annual Micro Air Vehicle Student Challenge — What a Journey!

The 8th Annual Micro Air Vehicle Student Challenge — What a Journey!

By Chantal Boucher

It all started at Forum 75 in May 2019 at the 7th Annual MAV competition in Philadelphia when some of our Montreal/Ottawa Chapter teammates saw firsthand what was required to host and organize a competition of that magnitude. We took the time to gather feedback from some of the organizers, the judges and the competitors.

After meeting with the 7th edition organizing team, we sat down to start discussing how to go about the 8th MAV competition, which was scheduled to happen during the 76th VFS Annual Forum in Montreal this May. We decided to raise the bar and started drafting new rules for the competition. Taking inspiration from the historic flooding of Quebec in Spring 2019, we decided that the mission for the 8th edition would be to deliver sandbags along the banks of a river to protect the waterfront residents. The teams could utilize either an autonomous or a manually piloted drone. The detailed rules are posted at
The mission for the competition was to transport sandbags along the banks of a river to protect the waterfront residents

The challenge started in October with the first deadline at end of January 2020, where the 13 teams submitted a report detailing their proposed design and sandbag delivery predictions. Seven teams were downselected to move forward and build a vehicle. Teams were required to submit a video of their vehicle flying to demonstrate competition readiness in mid-March, along with a progress report.

However, at the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic started having an impact on travel, schools and non-essential services. We started receiving feedback from the teams that travelling to the competition was becoming an issue and, in some cases, access to their school campus was prohibited. Soon, even Forum 76 had to be rescheduled into the next school year, making a flyoff untenable.

We did not want to abandon the idea of completing the competition, so to underscore each team’s effort, we brainstormed ideas on how to determine the competition winners. We decided to use the progress videos in conjunction with the team’s prediction to determine the scores and select the winners. Seven judges reviewed the submissions from the seven teams, and chose the four winning submissions, using a thorough scoring process:

  • 1st position: Maryland University – ASET
  • 2nd position: Maryland University – AMAV
  • 3rd position: McGill University VFS student Chapter
  • 4th position: Penn State University

The organizing team and judges were very pleased with the creativity and imagination applied to find great solutions for sandbag pickup and drop off.

Winning Team – University of Maryland – ASET
Top row (graduate student members) left to right: Nicholas Rehm (Team leader), Abhishek Shastry, Ilya Semenov. Bottom row (undergraduate student members) left to right: Peter Ryseck, Derek Safieh, Robbie Nawrocki

Winning Team Gate 2 Video

Manually Piloted Category

The McGill Chapter designed a version using a grip underneath the drone. The grip is remotely controlled to open and close on a sandbag, using a sandbag design with a handle to ease the pickup.

McGill – Sandbag Pickup System

The University of Portland opted to use a hook to grab the sandbag, suspended with two metal wires crossing each other on top of the bag. The hook is V-shaped and used as a scoop, picking up the bag while the hook is upward. When ready to deliver, the hook is retracted with an actuator, inverting the V-shape downward to drop the bag.

University of Portland Drone

Oregon State University chose a coaxial rotor design, using a platform to hold the sand bag, suspended in the middle by a hard wire holding a hook on top. The drone has a taut string mounted on a spring-loaded grip to keep the string straight and pick up the hook. When lifting, the weight of the payload bends the string, and keeps the payload centered.

Oregon State University – CAD vs Prototype

University of Maryland team AUSS chose a novel concept for pickup, utilizing a conical design to self-align a peg mounted to the sandbag to slide into a locking mechanism. The locking mechanism consists of two latches holding the lip on the sandbag peg in place when the mechanism is locked. The team is using an advanced piloting interface allowing them to move the drone very quickly.

University of Maryland – AUSS – Test Setup

Autonomous Category:

Penn State University also used a grip concept and video recognition for localization and planning. The design employs a target marker on the sandbag for detection, and two zip-tie loops on top of the bag for the grip to pick it up. The team was also able to demonstrate stable flight during significant winds (generated from a fan).

Penn State – Sandbag Pickup Mechanism

University of Maryland team ASET applied a similar cone design as team AUSS, but with a simplified iris assembly as the locking mechanism.

University of Maryland – ASET – Self-Aligning Payload Pickup and Dropping Mechanism

University of Maryland team AMAV developed a magnetic mechanism, where a small pulse that reverses the field of magnet accomplishes the gripping and releasing of the sandbag. The video submitted shows accurate and fast pick-up time. They also demonstrated autonomous operations and stable maneuvers under windy conditions.

University of Maryland – AMAV


Overall, the judges were very pleased with the efforts deployed by the teams, considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, in some cases, limited campus access and compounded limitations of parts supplies. The teams demonstrated compliance with the safety rules including a shunt plug on the drone and a kill switch on the controller.

These challenges bring great minds together to find solutions and opportunities to accomplish real missions. It empowers the teams to address a real-life problem where every aspect must come together for a successful execution. Whether it was designing, purchasing or producing parts, testing, ensuring safety or applying project management best practices, all team members were able to learn and exercise new skills.

A warm and grateful “thank you” to the main organizer, Mathieu Béland, and the rest of the team and judges for their dedication to organize this competition! The team also included Matthew Gruber, Guy Bernard, Maxime Lapalme, Robert Shelley, Roger Lacy, George Stulb, Scott Swinsick and Chantal Boucher. Throughout the competition, we received great support from VFS headquarters.