The Last Drone Standing: First Responder UAS Endurance Challenge

Picture this: A person is lost in the desert. Local first responders initiate a search and rescue operation. As they conduct the search, they’re faced with a problem: loss of broadband signal.

This isn’t a made-up scenario. First responders often work in conditions where communication networks are weak or not available. One possible solution is to use drones to deploy broadband networks, making signals available anywhere. But today’s drones often can’t provide adequate support to first responders. The equipment is too heavy for drones to carry for very long.To help solve the largest challenges facing the first responder community, NIST often turns to private companies, academic researchers, hobbyists, and others via open innovation prize challenges. This time, the First Responder Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Endurance Challenge addressed the obstacle of extending the flight time for drones that carry heavy payloads. The objective for challenge participants was to design, build and fly a UAS that could carry a 10-pound (4.5-kilogram) communications device to deploy broadband coverage for as long as possible to transfer critical data files to the first responders. And as part of the challenge, participants were tasked with overcoming difficult technical requirements including weight restrictions, vertical takeoff and landing, an ignition kill system, and an appropriate fuel system, all while ensuring cost-effectiveness.

Forty-three teams entered the competition, of which five final competitors spent a total of 14 months designing and building lightweight drones that go beyond today’s technical capabilities by flying continuously for 90 minutes or longer with heavy payloads. The prize challenge competitors built their systems with the intention of providing broadband service to boots-on-the-ground first responders when they lack network or bandwidth. This includes servicing areas with a lack of cellular network coverage or where cellular infrastructure has been compromised due to a natural disaster, or areas with limited backhaul connectivity, which links the main network to remote locations.

Investing in Ingenuity: The Winning Competitors

The competition’s top prize went to Team Advanced Aircraft Company (AAC), which received $100K for its six-rotor drone with propellers on each arm. AAC is a veteran-owned company based in Hampton, Virginia, that specializes in building American-made drones that enable longer flights through their hybrid-electric propulsion system. The company builds UAS devices that are quick to set up and easy to use for its customers, including members of the public safety community. Unlike some other prize challenge competitors, AAC’s drone is not a prototype but a product it currently is selling.

The other top teams in the competition included Team Intelligent Energy (IE), which received second place and $40K for its six-rotor drone with a hydrogen fuel system, long-endurance, and lifting capabilities. Team Autonomous Robotics Competition Club (ARCC), from Pennsylvania State University, took third place and received $20K for its multirotor, gas-electric hybrid drone. Team Endure Air also contributed to the UAS competition with its single-rotor helicopter drone.

In addition to the overall prizes, NIST awarded eight Best in Class awards, worth $5K each:

  • Endurance: Team AAC had a flight time of 112 minutes and 17 seconds in the “Last Drone Standing” technical flight.
  • Innovation: Team AAC received this award for addressing all stage four criteria, taking into account all drone specifications while maintaining a high regard for the public safety mission.
  • Weight: Endure Air’s UAS was 29.93 pounds (13.58 kilograms), the lightest of the competition.
  • Autonomy: Team ARCC received this award for the success of its preprogrammed flight paths, obstacle avoidance and automatic orbits.
  • Ease of Use: Endure Air took only four minutes and 30 seconds to put its UAS into an operational state, from packaging to flight-ready.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: Endure Air’s UAS costs less than $5,000 to build.
  • First Responder Award: AAC and ARCC were both awarded for their successes in public-safety-focused areas such as responsiveness, special features, and unique design elements.

The solutions developed by the four winners will increase UAS duration, payload, transmission rate and total transmission distances. With these new capabilities, the public safety community and first responders will have access to the tools they need to help save lives in search and rescue situations. “It’s very challenging to build a drone to the required first responder specifications,” said Dereck Orr, chief of NIST’s Public Safety Communications Research division. “Given the circumstances and restrictions, 112 minutes of flight time is extremely impressive.”

NIST regularly uses prize challenges to solve public safety problems. These competitions result in lasting partnerships with companies and academia to leverage for future innovations. And these partnerships help NIST advance critical research and development efforts that create conditions for economic growth and opportunity in the public safety domain.

More information about the UAS Endurance Challenge winners and their drones can be found on the NIST website.

Three New Drone Competitions

The latest UAS prize challenge, the First Responder UAS Triple Challenge, is open now and accepting submissions through Sept. 30. This challenge, also known as UAS 3.0, comprises three separate competitions:

  • Challenge 1 — FastFind: UAS Search Optimized
  • Challenge 2 — LifeLink: Providing Mobile UAS Data Wherever Lives Are on the Line
  • Challenge 3 — Shields Up! Securing Public Safety UAS Navigation & Control

UAS 3.0 will help first responders’ search and rescue missions by improving search capabilities in areas with dense foliage, increasing broadband connectivity to get critical data to first responders, and protecting systems from potential cyberattacks. To learn more about the competition and to enter, visit the UAS 3.0 website.

UAS 4.0 will also be launching soon, but we need your feedback! Are you a first responder or innovator? What UAS technology do you think needs improvement? What public safety problem needs solving? Let us know by writing to us at

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