Engineers develop technology to find missing pilot

Tech engineering students are developing technology to help in a search to find a missing pilot in Venezuela.

Six engineering students built a prototype launch and recovery system for a small, unmanned plane that can be used to search vast jungles. John Petry, Jordan Jozwik, Ryan Schewe, Will Owens, Ben Ellis and Dickson Brunett worked on the project as part of their mechanical engineering senior design capstone course.

Tech alumnus Bob Edwards asked Tech students and corporations nationwide to help in the mission after his friend, Bob Norton, went missing.

Norton, a medical aviation missionary, was flying an emergency medical mission when he, his wife-Niba-and five Venezuelans went missing three years ago in the jungles of the Gran Sabana. According to Edwards, the plane hit bad weather and Norton tried sending a radio message, which was unclear, to his base.

“They did a very good job on the prototype,” Darrell Hoy, professor and chairperson of mechanical engineering, said. “Of course, as a prototype some additional development is needed, along with full testing before we take it to Venezuela.”

The six engineering students designed a small rail system equipped with bungee cords to launch the remotely piloted vehicle. Hoy said the bungee cords were found to be the best way to launch the unmanned plane by itself and have the correct speed range for takeoff.

The recovery system is a large net that catches the plane after it’s launched. The net is used to recover the plane without damage in a short landing space. As a radio-controlled device, Hoy said the plane can be steered by the ground-based “pilot” into the approximate center of the net.

“This project has great potential to help in future search and rescue missions at an affordable cost,” Hoy said. “The ultimate goal is to help out other search and rescue operations.”

Hoy said it is not ready to implement yet and that he will have students work on it over the summer to lighten up and remove unnecessary weight.

“I am hoping to do a special topics course this summer to finish out the prototype design into a working model,” Hoy said.

Edwards said he was very pleased with all the ideas and devices created by the students.

“This is a great opportunity for students to get involved in a challenging search effort,” Edwards said. “We wanted to see if students could help develop and design tools to help with the mission.”

In the senior capstone design course, students work in groups on a main project they create or work with an outside company. Hoy said a lot of students want to do something that helps the public.

Edwards recently went to Venezuela with a search technician to get more information from eye witnesses about the possible area where the plane crashed and to meet with officials about bringing more technology into the country.

The Norton search team is comprised of volunteer engineers, pilots, search technicians, fundraisers, students and administrative help. It is not limited to engineers, any student interested can contribute.

For more information, go to www.findingbobnorton.org.