SDSU Student Engineers To Develop Human-Carrying Drone

Jan 14, 2020

From left, Anthony Bachmeier, Sterling Berg and Nick Runge discuss the cost of batteries for use in a drone designed to carry a human. The project is largely funded by a NASA grant of $80,000.
Credit John Nguyen

A research project is starting to take flight at South Dakota State University with a little help from NASA.

Seven students are building a drone capable enough to lift a human being for their capstone senior design project, motivated by the NASA University Student Research Challenge.

“The first two, three weeks to a month of school, we brainstormed trying to think of ideas that would fit well with this challenge,” said senior Nick Runge and one of the mechanical engineers on the project. “We came up with this idea of this drone large enough to transport a human.”

The goal of the project is to design and test a drone capable of carrying 200 to 250 pounds without any pilot operator.

The team applied for the challenge and NASA awarded the group an $80,000 grant for further development. It’s the first time in SDSU history that a project of this size has received an extensive amount of money to work with.

The team consists of four mechanical engineering students, one electrical engineering student and two business, marketing and finance students. Each role has their own vital part to play in the drone-making process, utilizing the talents of other students who aren’t a part of the SDSU engineering program.

“All of three of those different studies, different disciplines, this wouldn’t be possible without them,” Runge said. “It’s key to have multiple groups working on the same project.”

The students were initially granted half of the money from NASA. They’re required to raise at least $2,000 through crowdsourcing to receive the rest. A few weeks after they started promoting, ATLAS finally reached that marker.

For the drone itself, Runge noted that one strength of the current design is that it's modular.

“We did that so we can see which is the best way to fly as far as stability, movement and maneuverability,” he said.

The students named themselves Advanced Transportation through Leading-edge Aerial Systems, or ATLAS, which the students named after the Greek myth of the titan who holds up the world.

This may prove a Herculean task, but ATLAS member Anthony Bachmeier thinks the strength lies within learning opportunities.

“I would say that this is completely new to all of us,” he said. “So, we are all learning as we go. At least from the business side, we’ve never had real life experience like this.”

The group is working on a prototype of the drone, which they dubbed Hummingbird.  It’s a smaller version of Albatross, their larger drone planned to be about 10 to 15 feet wide.

ATLAS has the remainder of this year to get Albatross to fly, and their ambition matches their lofty goal to finish before graduation.