International Aerial Robotics Competition

International Aerial Robotics Competition

The International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC) began in 1991 on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology and is the longest running university-based robotics competition in the world. Since 1991, collegiate teams with the backing of industry and government have fielded autonomous flying robots in an attempt to perform missions that required robotic behaviors never before exhibited in a flying machine. In 1990, the term “Aerial Robotics” was coined by competition creator Prof. Robert Michelson to describe a new class of small highly intelligent flying machines. [cite news|url=
title="No Pilots, No Problem: Students Build Autonomous Aircraft", IEEE, The Institute Online|date=2006-08-07|accessdate=2008-08-25
] The successive years of competition saw these aerial robots grow in their capabilities from vehicles that could at first barely maintain themselves in the air, to the most recent automatons which are self-stable, self-navigating, and able to interact with their environment–- especially, objects on the ground.

The primary goal of the competition has been to provide a reason for the state-of-the art in aerial robotics to move forward. Challenges set before the international collegiate community have been geared to produce advances in the state-of-the-art at an evermore aggressive pace. As of 2006 four missions had been proposed. Each of them involved fully autonomous robotic behavior that was undemonstrated at the time and impossible for any robotic system fielded anywhere in the world, even by the most sophisticated military robots belonging to the super powers.


First Mission

The initial mission to move a metallic disc from one side of an arena to another with a completely autonomous flying robot was seen by many as almost impossible. The college teams continued to improve their entries over the next two years when the competition saw its first autonomous takeoff, flight, and landing by a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Three years later in 1995 a team from Stanford University was able to acquire a single disk and move it from one side of the arena to the other in a fully autonomous flight-- half a decade earlier than some pundit predictions.

econd Mission

The competition mission was then toughened and made a bit less abstract by requiring teams to search for a toxic waste dump, map the location of partially-buried randomly-oriented toxic waste drums, identify the contents of each drum from the hazard labels found somewhere on the outside of each drum, and bring a sample back from one of the drums-- all without any human intervention whatsoever.

In 1996 a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with backing from Draper Labs, created a small fully autonomous flying robot that repeatedly and correctly mapped the location of all five of the toxic waste drums while correctly identifying the contents of two from the air, thereby completing approximately seventy five percent of the mission. The following year, an aerial robot developed by a team from Carnegie Mellon University completed the entire mission.

Third Mission

The third mission was begun in 1998. It was a search and rescue mission requiring fully autonomous robots to take off, fly to a disaster area and search for survivors and the dead amid raging fires, broken water mains, clouds of toxic gas, and rubble from destroyed buildings. The scenario was recreated at the U.S. Department of Energy's Hazardous Material Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) training facility where the above hazards could be recreated. Because of the realism of the scenario, animatrons were used instead of human actors to simulate survivors incapable of extracting themselves from the disaster area.

An aerial robot from Germany's Technische Universität Berlin was able to detect and avoid all of the obstacles (many of which could have destroyed the aerial robot itself), identify all the dead on the ground and the survivors (distinguishing between the two based on movement), and relayed pictures of the survivors along with their locations back to first responders who would attempt a rescue. This mission was completed in the year 2000.

Fourth Mission

  • The fourth mission was initiated in 2001, the beginning of the new millennium. This fully autonomous mission involved three scenarios requiring the same autonomous behavior. The first scenario was a hostage rescue mission where a submarine 3 kilometers off the coast of a third world nation must send in an aerial robot to find a coastal city, identify the embassy where the hostages are being held, locate valid openings in the embassy building, enter (or send in a sensor probe/subvehicle) and relay pictures of the hostages back 3 km to the submarine prior to mounting an amphibious assault on the embassy to free the hostages.

  • The second scenario involved an explosion at a nuclear reactor facility which shuts down two of three reactors. Everyone is killed in the disaster and scientists must send in an aerial robot to find the operating reactor building, enter the building (or send in a sensor probe/subvehicle) and relay pictures of the control panels to determine if a melt-down is imminent. The scientists are forced to maintain a 3 kilometer stand-off distance due to the extreme radiation hazard.

  • The third scenario revolved around the discovery of an ancient mausoleum by archaeologists. An ancient virus contained in the mausoleum has quickly killed all the archaeological team, but prior to their death they radioed that a very important and undocumented tapestry is hanging inside. The local government is planning to cleanse the area with a fuel-air explosion in 15 minutes, so the scientists will send in an autonomous aerial robot to find the mausoleum, enter it (or send in a sensor probe/subvehicle) and relay pictures of the tapestry back prior to the destruction of the mausoleum and its contents.

    All three missions involve the same elements:

    1. Rapid ingress over a 3 km path
    2. Location of a building complex
    3. Location of a specific building within the complex
    4. Identification of valid openings in that building
    5. Entry into the building by the aerial robot or a sensor-carrying subvehicle
    6. Relay of pictures from within back to the launch point 3 km away
    7. Mission completion within 15 minutes
    8. Full autonomy throughout all aspects of the mission

This fourth IARC mission was conducted at the U.S. Army's Fort Benning Soldier Battle Lab using the McKenna MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) site which replicates a complete German village that was recreated for war gaming when the main cold war threat was perceived to come through the Fulda Gap into Germany. The fourth mission was completed in 2008 with various teams having already demonstrated all of the required aerial robotic behaviors mandated by the fourth mission rules, except being able to demonstrate these behaviors seamlessly in under 15 minutes-- a feat considered by the Organizer and Judges to be inevitable given a bit more time, and therefore no longer a significant challenge. Thus the fourth mission was terminated, $80,000 in awards distributed, and the fifth mission established.

Fifth Mission

The new fifth Mission picks up where the fourth Mission left off by demonstrating the fully autonomous aerial robotic behaviors necessary to rapidly negotiate the confined internal spaces of a structure once it has been penetrated by an air vehicle. The fifth mission requires a fully autonomous aerial vehicle (presupposed to have been launched from a "mother ship" just outside the structure as demonstrated in during the fourth mission) to penetrate the structure and negotiate the more complex interior space containing hallways, small rooms, obstacles, and dead ends in order to search for a designated target without the aid of global-positioning navigational aids, and relay pictures back to a monitoring station some distance from the structure.


Collegiate teams participating in the IARC have come primarily from the United states, but also from Germany, England, Switzerland, Canada, and India. Teams range in size from several students, up to twenty or more. Both undergraduate and graduate students populate the teams, though there here have been some completely undergraduate teams and some totally graduate student teams. Industry is not permitted to enter, but it may assist the student teams with funding and equipment.

Aerial Robots

The aerial robots vary in design from fixed wing airplanes, to conventional helicopters, to ducted fans, to airships, and beyond to bizarre hybrid creations. Because the Competition focuses on fully autonomous behavior, the air vehicle itself is of less importance.

Teams which choose to develop new air vehicle types never have won because those teams which adapt existing, working air vehicles to the mission can concentrate on making their aerial robots perform the mission rather than developing something that will fly at all. As a result, adaptations of conventional rotary wing and fixed wing entries have always been the overall winners, with airships and ducted fans a close second.


The International Aerial Robotics Competition was first held on the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology (First Mission, 1991 - 1995). Walt Disney World's


IARC prizes have traditionally been "winner take all", although during the early years of the Competition monetary progress awards were given to further development of the best performers. With the Fourth Mission it was realized that there would be no quick winners and that several years of development would be required by all of the teams. Therefore an incremental "growing prize pot" was established in which each year the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International adds another US$10,000 to the "pot". The 2008 prize level was set at a total of $80,000. Any team that could demonstrate the entire Fourth Mission in under 15 minutes would receive the entire $80,000 prize in 2008, otherwise the prize would be distributed based on 2008 competitor performance most closely approaching the 15-minute mission goal. By 2008, Levels 1 through 3 of the 4th Mission had been demonstrated, proving that all required aerial robotic behaviors were possible, but by the end of the 2008 Competition event, no single team was able to sequentially and seamlessly demonstrate all behaviors in under 15 minutes, so the $80,000 was awarded to ten finalists (Georgia Institute of Technology receiving $27,700, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University receiving $17,700, Embry Riddle/DeVry Calgary receiving $12,200, with the remainder divided up between the other finalists based on merit).

pin Offs

The competition creator, Prof. Robert Michelson is past President of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) [cite news|url=
title=Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, International|accessdate=2008-08-25
] . The IARC was first established with seed money for logistics and a grand prize that was backed by the Association. After the initial success and tremendous media attention garnered by the IARC, the AUVSI launched the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition ( [ IGVC] ) a few years later in Detroit, MI. This was organized by AUVSI Board member, Jerry Lane who worked at the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Command at the time. In 1998, the underwater community was represented when AUVSI and the U.S. Office of Naval Research teamed up to offer the first International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition [ autonomous underwater vehicle competition] which is held annually in the U.S. All of these competitions, land, sea, and air, have at their core, "full autonomy" as a distinctive. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International continues to support these competitions with logistics and prize money although there are numerous industry co-sponsors as well.

elected IARC Reports and Publications

# Proctor, A.A., Kannan, S.K., Raabe, C., Christophersen, H.B., and Johnson, E.N., “Development of an Autonomous Aerial Reconnaissance System at Georgia Tech,” Proceedings of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Unmanned Systems Symposium & Exhibition, 2003.
# Howe. J., Vogl, M., Banik, J., et al, "Design and Development of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology’s Aerial Robotic Reconnaissance System", 1994 Proceedings of the AUVSI.
# Michelson, R.C., "The International Aerial Robotics Competition - a Decade of Excellence, "Unmanned Vehicles (UV) for Aerial, Ground and Naval Military Operations, NATO Research and Technology Organization Proceedings 52, Applied Vehicle Technology Panel (AVT), Ankara, Turkey, 9 - 13 October 2000, pp. SC3-1 to SC-24
# Michelson, R.C., "Les Plus Petites Machines Volantes Intelligentes du Monde", Radio Commande Magazine, ISSN 0290-9693, April, 1998, pp. 22 - 27
# Michelson, R.C., "International Aerial Robotics Competition- The world’s smallest intelligent flying machines," 13th Bristol International RPV/UAV Systems Conference Proceedings, Bristol England, 30 March 1998 - 1 April 1998, pp. 31.1 - 30.10

Internet references

* [ Official IARC web site] - The official web site for the International Aerial Robotics Competition. (Retrieved 25 August 2008)
* [ Official Rules for the Fourth Mission] - Rules for the Fourth Mission and entry information (Retrieved 4 February 2006)
* [ Official Rules for the Fifth Mission] - Rules for the Fourth Mission and entry information (Retrieved 25 August 2008)
* [ Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International] - Association web site with links to activities and other AUVSI competitions. (Retrieved 4 February 2006)
* [ TRADOC News Service and Web Operations] - TRADOC News Service, July 25 2003 article about the 2003 IARC. (Retrieved 4 February 2006)


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