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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU students developing autonomous helicopter

Ask anyone who has flown a helicopter, and they will tell you it is not an easy job.

Electrical engineering students Matt Pendergraft and Steven Roberts work on the autonomous helicopter in NMSU's RioRoboLab under the direction of Professor Nadipuram Prasad (right). (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

of students at New Mexico State University has taken on an even more daunting task: developing a helicopter that can fly on its own.

The project is the brainchild of Ram Prasad, an associate professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NMSU who has a longstanding interest in helicopters.

Work on the helicopter began last semester as a capstone design project. White Sands Missile Range is funding the project and Lockheed Martin, which has a helicopter research facility at WSMR, is a collaborating partner. Prasad said Lockheed Martin plans to build a full-scale model of the NMSU prototype once it is completed.

The prototype is about three feet long and one foot tall. It can be commanded to take off, hover, go up and down, go around in circles, or follow any prescribed pattern of motion towards a destination, and return. By the end of the semester, the students hope to have the prototype to the point that it can make a totally autonomous takeoff, hover and landing.

Eventually, the helicopter will be programmed so that it could do the kind of things a human operator would do during the course of navigation, such as avoiding collisions with objects coming at it, and moving safely within a maze of stationary and mobile objects.

"Remote-controlled vehicles have to be within sight for an operator to control them," Prasad explains. "An autonomous helicopter could be out of sight and still accomplish its mission."

Prasad said an autonomous helicopter would have many potential uses, including performing rescues in the ocean or going into an area where radiation has been released.

The autonomous helicopter is being built in NMSU's RioRoboLab, a NASA-funded laboratory that is working on a variety of projects that combine robotics and artificial intelligence systems. Prasad said the technology that students are developing for the helicopter has a variety of other applications, such as space exploration and medicine. It could be used, for example, to design artificial limbs that could learn how to mimic the gait pattern of the user.

In 2001, Prasad was selected out of nearly 2,000 faculty members nationwide to spend a year at the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a NASA Faculty Fellow under the NASA Administrator's Fellowship Program (NAFP). "It was a life-changing experience" he said.