Miki Szmuk is an aerospace engineer with big ideas for building better unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). As a doctoral student from the Controls Lab for Distributed and Uncertain Systems (C-DUS) of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Texas (UT) in Austin, Szmuk specializes in the engineering of small, sophisticated UAVs.
Szmuk and the rest of the C-DUS research group, who are advised by Dr. Maruthi Akella, focus on addressing fundamental engineering problems in nonlinear dynamical systems, measurements, and control. This includes the coordinated operation of distributed multi-vehicle swarms. Consequently, the C-DUS research group employs UAVs in demonstrating various control and estimation algorithms that it develops.
These crafts are not easy to build. Weighing only a few pounds, UAVs must travel long distances, reliably collecting and processing data along the way. In order to meet the always evolving needs of the UAV industry, Szmuk recognized the need to develop PCB design skills. Without them, it would be difficult to costeffectively improve functionality of his department’s drones and get in front of industry expansion.
Szmuk first reached out to Sunstone as an undergrad at UT. “I was working on a UAV with a two and a half pound autopilot system,” said Szmuk. The vehicle’s overall size is a function of the payload it must carry and it took a twenty-five to thirty pound UAV just to accommodate the oversized autopilot. “That was simply too big for what we needed this plane to do,” said Szmuk.
Issues with size compound quickly when building a UAV. If the autopilot is too big, that impacts the wing area and fuselage size. The result is an oversized craft with less functionality and a higher cost. The cumbersome, original UAV design was done component by component, thus the oversized end product. Szmuk took it upon himself to look at the bigger picture.
Szmuk called Sunstone, looking not just for someone to manufacture boards but for a way to design them himself. With their help, he designed his first PCB—a small board that routed the plane’s wiring in a more organized and efficient way. The board helped reduce the size of the autopilot and enabled other refinements such as the replacement of a baseballsize sensor with a small chip. As the autopilot design evolved, the system shrank from its original weight of over two pounds down to just thirteen grams. As a result, the next version of the craft weighed just 20% of its predecessor.
Szmuk continues to develop smaller, higher performance UAVs. Using PCB123 and Sunstone, he has made increasingly complex circuits to trim bulk and increase capabilities. A project funded through NASA required Szmuk to demonstrate novel guidance algorithms and build his smallest UAV to that point. These algorithms were geared towards improving the autonomy of unmanned climate science missions in the Arctic.
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