Design Engineering

U of T Engineering team takes top prize at national drone competition


Automation Aerospace drones University of Toronto

Thirteen Canadian university student teams competed in the flying phase of the ninth Unmanned Systems Canada UAS Student Competition.

The Unmanned Systems Canada Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Student Competition took place on April 28-30, 2017 with the University of Toronto Engineering student team taking top prize.

UAV drone UofT

Left to right: U of T Engineering students Oliver Wu, Andrew Ilersich, Erik Chau, Winston Liu, Kevin Dong, Kevin Xu, Rikky Duivenvoorden and Spencer Zhao. This team took first place at the Unmanned Systems Canada UAS Student Competition. (Courtesy: UTAT)

This year’s challenge was for participants to design a drone system that is able to survey and locate nests of three different types of geese in remote Canadian locations. Each team was required to retrieve an egg from one of the nest to be tested for environmental contaminants.

The University of Toronto Aerospace Team’s (UTAT) UAV Division designed a two-drone system that was able to achieve top results.

The team created two separate vehicles: a fixed-wing UAV called UT-X2B to conduct the census, and a quadcopter called UTX-D to retrieve the egg. Both vehicles can fly to a specified location autonomously, using GPS to navigate and visual cameras to capture images of their targets. The robotic arm used to capture the egg, however, is operated manually.


In the initial run, no team managed to capture the egg. However, the organizers asked the teams to showcase and demonstrate the retrieval mechanisms. Teams were also judged on how well their aerial surveys matched the known distribution of simulated geese on the ground.

“Retrieving the egg was particularly difficult,” says Rikky Duivenvoorden (EngSci 1T3 +PEY, UTIAS MASc 1T6), a safety pilot and technical advisor for UTAT’s UAV Division. “We’ve had to drop things before, but picking something up added a completely new dimension.”

Duivenvoorden says that the team was really surprised and happy they won explaining that the competition was really tense because they couldn’t really tell how well the other teams were performing.

“I was totally impressed with the incredible enthusiasm and wonderful talent of these young university students,” said David Bird, an ornithologist and professor emeritus at McGill University. Bird often uses drones in his own research and devised the challenge for this year’s competition. “It was a pleasure to be among them for the three days in Alma and I was thrilled that they were being challenged by my goose census and egg sample retrieval.”

A second team from UTAT’s Aerial Robotics division also competed in the challenge. Their vehicle, UT Skyhawk, combines both fixed-wing and quad-copter components. It placed fourth overall and the team won the Judges’ Award for professionalism. Earlier this year, UTAT’s Aerial Robotics Division won the design phase of the competition, with the UAV division coming in second.

Duivenvoorden has competed in five of these events, this being his last one. He’s now launching a startup company, Keystone Composites. The company will manufacture carbon-fibre components with a better strength-to-weight ratio than those currently available, and was directly inspired by the challenges the team faced in finding suitable materials for the drones in the competition.

For Duivenvoorden, it’s just a matter of time before drones become commonplace in our every day lives.

“From a technological standpoint, we’re basically there. From a regulatory standpoint, we have to share the airspace with manned aircraft, so it’s very important to make sure that we ensure safety for everyone,” he says. “As autonomous systems like ours continue to improve, that will become easier to do.”


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