Game of drones: UH-Mānoa students headed to international drone competition

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Seven University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa College of Engineering students are headed to the mainland to take part in a game of drones for a battle to see who will be crowned the unmanned aerial systems king.

Courtesy of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

The 22nd annual Student Unmanned Aerial Systems Competition is June 25-27 at St. Mary’s County Regional Airport in California, Md.

This is the fifth year the UH Drone Technologies team is participating in the international competition. Its best finish was sixth in 2017 and third among U.S. teams the same year.

The team aims to place higher this year.

Leiolani Malagon Bracamontes Rodriguez, a senior mechanical engineering major, is the program manager for the 36-student team and one of the seven students traveling to the international competition.


“Just because we’re not from the mainland or we’re not from a bigger state doesn’t mean that we don’t have brilliant minds here at UH,” said Bracamontes Rodriguez. “Being able to go and represent UH-Mānoa and Hawaiʻi in general — because we’re the only one from Hawaiʻi going — it’s a great opportunity and we’re very fortunate.”

Out of more than 50 teams that entered the competition, 36 qualified, including teams from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkey, India, Czech Republic, Norway, Italy, Canada and the United States.

The competition has two elements: the design and flight readiness presentation and the mission demonstration.

Courtesy of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

The presentation portion assesses a team’s drone design, testing and preparedness. The demonstration portion simulates a mission, consisting of autonomous flight, obstacle avoidance, object detection and an airdrop).


Carl Domingo, a spring 2024 computer engineering graduate who is also on the UH traveling drone design team, will begin working as a nuclear engineer at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard after the competition.

“A lot of people should be proud of what we do,” said Domingo. “We don’t just build drones just for fun. There are some real-world applications of what we do.”

Drones contribute to efficiency, safety and innovation across various sectors such as agriculture, construction, infrastructure inspection, emergency response, environmental monitoring, delivery services and more.

“Unmanned aerial systems have been increasingly important,” said Wayne Shiroma, the team’s advisor and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering chairman and professor. “Amazon has used them for package delivery. NASA is currently using [unmanned aerial systems] for wildfire detection. Essentially, any time where it would be cheaper or safer to send an unmanned aerial system instead of a human, that’s where these [unmanned aerial systems] could come into play.”


He said participating in the competition will help the students gain practical experience, problem-solving skills and exposure to cutting-edge technology, preparing them for future careers in the rapidly evolving field of drone technology.

And it’s more than just the engineering of their project, which in and of itself is already complicated because of its interdisciplinary nature.

“The students also have to raise their own finances, they have design review meetings, they interact with the sponsors of the project,” Shiroma said. “So, all in all, it’s a fantastic opportunity for them to get a foothold to what they’re going to be experiencing out in the industry.”

Courtesy of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

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