Blimp team soars at ONR-backed competition

SWAMP Blimps, UF’s lighter-than-air vehicle team, made Hindenburgs out of their opponents at the 99++ Luftballons competition in November. Hosted by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the event took place at Indiana University and also featured teams from Baylor University, West Virginia University, George Mason University, and Lehigh University. 

The matches consisted of an aerial indoor soccer-like game where the blimps had to capture neutrally buoyant Mylar balloons and put them through goals to score. Gameplay alternated between short periods of manual control over the blimps and longer periods of vehicle autonomy. Scoring while the blimps acted autonomously was far more valuable than scoring during teleoperation.

After dropping a 4-2 dogfight to George Mason in their first game, SWAMP Blimps glided to a 173-6 (yes, really) pulverization of Baylor and never looked back, winning every ensuing head-to-head matchup by a sky-high margin. In an intense final match, during which all the teams competed against each other for a full hour on the same field all at once, UF pulled off a narrow, heart-pounding victory after scoring the winning points with 10 seconds left. In total, UF’s team scored 301 points throughout the entire event, compared to 138 from every other team in each of their games combined. 

“There’s no question we succeeded because the students were willing to work extremely hard at this, and they’ve gotten excited about this,” said Professor Matthew Hale, the team’s faculty advisor. “I think that the credit really goes to them.”

Hale noted that the team was confident going in, but never predicted just how high they would fly at this competition.

“We kind of deliberately had no expectations,” he said. “We just said, ‘We’re just going to show up and do our absolute best,’ and we were cautiously optimistic, but we didn’t expect to do as well as we did. That was a surprise.”

Preparation for 99++ Luftballons involved months of testing prototypes, making design modifications, ordering and 3D-printing lightweight parts, and pure trial and error. The blimps were about 6 to 8 feet in length, with basswood frames, Mylar envelopes, and racing drone motors and propellers. Among the most difficult challenges were developing strong computer vision when such computers tend to struggle with reflective material like Mylar, ensuring overall system reliability when just one error could ruin the operation, and maintaining a total weight below 1 pound in order to preserve buoyancy. 

Aidan Amstutz, a team leader who earned his master’s in mechanical engineering last semester, attributed the group’s overall triumph to the dedication of its members and their attention to detail.

“A large portion of our team’s success was due to the amount of testing and the selection of electronics that were used on the blimps. Some of the components that were on the blimp had a greater learning curve to use them but resulted in better performance in sensing and agility,” he said. “The most fun part was being able to learn about robotics and getting to see designs go from an idea to a working prototype weekly.”

SWAMP Blimps will next patrol the (indoor) skies over Fairfax, Virginia, when George Mason hosts a lighter-than-air vehicle competition in April. 

“The future of the club looks very good, we have been able to consistently produce better designs each semester and there have been many awesome ideas for future improvements,” Amstutz said.

He and fellow team leader Coleton van Valkenburgh, who also earned his master’s in mechanical engineering last semester, are now taking their talents to Northrop Grumman, one of the largest aerospace and defense technology companies in the world.

Story by: Ben Crosbie
Graphic by: Hayley Starr
Marketing & Communications Student Assistants
UF Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
February 1, 2023