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UT developing unmanned aerial vehicles for NASA

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A University of Texas professor and some of his students are giving new meaning to auto-pilot. They are leading the effort to help send unmanned aerial vehicles to the arctic to collect important scientific data for NASA.

"Three, two, one, lift off," said Miki Szmuk as the quad-copter took off in a field in East Austin.

Szmuk is a graduate student in aerospace engineering. He's working under Associate Professor Maruthi Akella. Both spent Friday morning testing an unmanned aerial vehicle built from the ground up.

"What we developed is everything. The flight station, the ground software and the hardware," Szmuk explained.

"To our knowledge this is the first test of capabilities where everything is done on board with no human intervention on the ground," explained Akella.

The vehicles fly and ride solo designed to find a location and a way to get there. The research is for NASA and its IceBridge Program which studies the planet's Polar Regions and amounts of ice shift. The devices will go where it may be too dangerous or expensive for scientists to go.

Where the rover travels, the quad-copter follows mimicking a target location. Some people may call the vehicle a drone, a word Akella doesn't like to use. "I prefer not to use the word drone, it has a negative connotation and these are just aerial robots. If you can handle the idea of a ground robot or a Roomba vacuum cleaner there shouldn't be issues with robots flying overhead," said Akella.

He goes on to say that privacy concerns are justified. "On a dual track there needs to be legal and ethical framework. As an engineer my focus is on making sure we are ready to use these systems in the best possible way," Akella explained.

NASA will have UT's research by Thanksgiving. The devices should be operational by 2015.

"The possibilities are enormous," Akella said.

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