10 reasons I chose to join Triton UAS

24 minute read


This post is a reprint of the original post I wrote on the Triton UAS blog. This post has been edited to add COMMENTARY blocks with my own commentary.

Triton UAS is a club at UC San Diego which makes Unmanned Aerial Systems, aka autonomous planes.

LA JOLLA, CA - UC San Diego’s massive campus offers hundreds of clubs to join and thousands of classes to take. When I came to UCSD, I spent a lot of time shopping around for what I wanted to do with my free time here. I read through the list of all clubs multiple times to find a place to belong. I want to share why Triton UAS members chose to join, and why sticking with Triton UAS for four years turned out to be the best decision I could ever make.

Clearly I had nothing to do during lockdown before and during college because I made a huge 43 page document where I wrote everything I need to know about UCSD. I went through the entire UCSD club list and course catalog. I made a list of 18 clubs I wanted to check out. Reading through it 4 years later, almost all of it except for course planning turned out to be completely irrelevant. I guess I had no one to talk to, so I went on the internet to know what the school I go to is like.

1. The project is exciting

Triton UAS participates in the Student Unmanned Aerial Systems competition. Each year, we design and manufacture a plane from scratch to compete. Then our plane autonomously flies an obstacle course, searches for lost targets on the ground, and safely delivers aid to their locations.

The project is so cool! We build a real, double-than-human sized plane that carries out a mission autonomously. It is inspiring to take part in the process of going from nothing to plane. At the end of the year, I can squint up into the sky and see my work flying.

Flying to the moon

I first heard about TritonUAS while searching through a large list of student project teams that I was interested in. Immediately reading through their website, I was hooked and scheduled a meeting with the project manager. What he told me solidified my interest. They make their own autonomous aircraft, which at that time I had never done before, and they teach everything we need to know to make it? Of course I'm going to join. First stepping into the lab later in the year, my mind was absolutely blown. The project manager explained to me that the TritonUAS team has existed for almost 20 years and has competed in the annual SUAS international competition for almost every year of its existence. The ever-changing competition task guidelines inspire innovation and creativity, as each year they design and manufacture a new aircraft from scratch, and all parts are made by the students. Because experience is not required, they will teach you everything you need to know. Through this, I learned manufacturing processes like wet-composite layups to build the wings and the fuselage with carbon fiber and fiber glass. CNC laser cutting and hot wire cutting to create all of the ribs, bulkheads, wing molds and more. Design software like Solidworks, Onshape, and Matlab were also taught. Tolerancing 3D printed parts to make molds for forged carbon fiber, optimization to understand the best sizing recommendations for the aircraft, and computational fluid dynamic simulations are all things I have learned and are all done by the students! Best of all, after your first quarter, you are immediately added to the competition aricraft design team and are able to create your own parts for the aircraft. It was rewarding and amazing.
I first came across TUAS during Zoom University. There was an online event where you could meet all engineering clubs. I was popping into the rooms, listening to the pitches, and asking questions. I came across Garrett, who was the software lead. He was presenting slides about TUAS and told me about what he worked on. In a way that is impossible to describe, I was hooked. He is an amazing nice person and geniunely curious. As a freshman, I knew nothing compared to the leads. If I ever asked any question about what Docker is, or any of the multitude of things they had set up, the leads were ready to answer questions and cared about helping us. I didn't know about CI, Pythonic stuff, or anything other than basic coding logic. It was so funny becoming friends with people I only knew over Zoom.

2. Making something cool

I love that we build a real system. It is no comparison that an autonomous flying plane is cooler than any class project. Some of the things we do have never been done, by students or professionals. Autonomous vehicles are still a largely unsolved problem — you cannot search for existing solutions to the problems we face. Building planes is tough, and moreso given our time and monetary constraints.

However, we rise to the challenge. Triton UAS is a team effort. It is amazing to create something that I could never do on my own.

My only previous experience was with highschool FIRST Robotics Competition. I remember finding working on robots extremely difficult, but we had plenty of mentor help and you could always find reference implementations online. In comparison, Triton UAS is engineering its way through problems that do not have well defined solutions. We have to figure things out ourselves instead of treading paths where others have discovered the dangers for us. I feel satisfaction by watching us step towards conquering these extremely hard problems.

3. Mentorship

Triton UAS taught me that you can learn anything. Each team lead is an expert at what they do. The leads will teach you everything you need to know. We have an onboarding plane project which allows new members to hit the ground running. Rookie members learn our manufacturing processes and the onboarding projects help all the teams work together towards a unified goal. Experienced members use this time to work on the design of the competition plane. New recruits get to deploy something they built within their first quarter.

Even outside of TUAS, making friends with upperclasspeople can help you navigate school and choosing your future.

I think the best reason to join TritonUAS is to get the opportunity to learn by doing. I think there's no better way to pick up new skills then to set out to work on a project. TritonUAS provides members with opportunities to get involved on a long term project where they can be free to make mistakes and learn new skills.

4. Collaboration

There are several subteams which are critical to our mission: airframe, business, embedded, and software. We actively encourage collaboration between teams and make sure that we are foremost learning and having fun. Our airdrop task requires us to design a mechanism to deliver a package to the target. For the dropping mechanism, airframe designed a door in the bottom of the plane and iterated on the internal machinery. Members collaborated with embedded to make the electronics for the guided payload and enlisted software to handle the logic for dropping and making sure that the communications fail safely.

TUAS is in the sweet spot of size. You can get to know everyone in the club. Also, you are not a cog working on a random minor aspect of the plane. Another great part of the community is that you get to interact with the local domain experts. Within TUAS, I have met students who have spent hundreds of hours working with carbon composites, the state of the art of machine learning research, and experts in PCB manufacturing.

Check out why members of our different subteams think:

Airframe: 🛫

From Day One in TUAS we have been learning all sorts of manufacturing techniques. I learned how to do carbon fiber layups, create airfoils, and laser cut wood all in the first couple weeks. As the year went on we started designing specific parts of the plane, for me it was the tail joints and control surfaces. It was an interesting and educational process trying to design a connection that was strong enough to withstand the many forces acting on the tail while minimizing weight and difficulty of manufacturing. Overall, TUAS has been a fun place to learn about all the different steps in the engineering process from day one.

Software: 💻

I liked that TUAS is uniquely both a novel hardware chanllenge and a novel software challenge. Although self driving is not solved, the kinds of things you do with terrestrial robotics are mostly well-defined issues by now. Whereas there is less research in the SOTA of autonomous planes. We face a different set of constraints and have to engineer solutions which I haven’t seen published anywhere online. Also we have great onboarding for people at all levels: people who have never coded can learn from our git workshop, or we will teach Computer Vision to those new to doing vision.

I also think TritonUAS is unique among other organizations and projects for how wide it's scope is. At least for the software team, we touch many aspects of computer science ranging from computer vision and machine learning, systems and networking, and search algorithms. It's a great place to acquire a wide breadth of knowledge and get to explore interests in a supportive environment.

Embedded: 🔌

If it has to do with power, general electronics, or microcontrollers and the software that interfaces them, the embedded team does it. I like the variety you can find in the embedded team. On one hand you have people who are purely on the electrical engineering side of things and work with things like powerboard, and on the other people who prefer software in a more hardware context working on things like controls algorithms for the guided payloads.

Business: 🕴

We run the finances and logistics for the team. Business is charge of corporate sponsorships, running fundraisers, and managing expenses. We also manage external communication through this blog, our LinkedIn, and Instagram. We also make awesome merch and bring the team together with our epic socials like the beach day and TUAS Olympics.

And remember that these distinctions are fluid. We have people in multiple subteams, or people who jump over for a single project. For example, a software member could hop into the embedded meetings for a quarter to work on our camera gimbal.

5. Competition

Our work culminates in flying out to the competition in Maryland each year. We fly our plane autonomously all the way from California to Maryland! Unfortunately, it only sits autonomously in the cargo hold of a Boeing airliner.

I find the deadline very motivating. The bonding we experience at deadlines is stronger than I have ever experienced elsewhere. Everyone bands together to meet the integration test deadlines. I know that if I ever need help, I can call out and multiple people will come to help me at any time of day or night.

Competition also means that a lot of work has to be done each year; we design and build a new plane every year to meet the ever-changing competition objectives. We are not creating a project that gets thrown away after demoing 24 hours of work or presenting a quarter of work; our plane is not a one-off launch that then turns into an art exhibit. We must work to create reliable systems which will be maintainable by other people. We work to improve our systems year-over-year. In addition to short term goals, we have multi-year projects to improve the plane, such as turning electronics wiring into a custom PCB, developing new Computer Vision models for dynamic detection, and experimenting with new carbon fiber manufacturing techniques for the plane.

I like our rapid iteration. We output ≥1 plane per year, so there is the opportunity to see your design carrying out the mission and improve it based on the results.

TUAS is an established club. TUAS has been around for nearly two decades, whereas many of the other robotics and aviation clubs were founded a few years ago. This means that we have to work with some systems that have been made entirely by graduated students. We have the realistic situation of working with hardware and decisions made long ago.

6. TUAS is approachable

There is no mandatory attendance policy. There is no required previous experience. There are no interviews. There is no member fee. I love that TUAS is open to everyone from every background, experience, and history. In Fall, our number one goal is to mentor new members. We are not screening new hires for their experience to be able to work on their minor part of the system and learn nothing new.

The more you put into the club, the more you get back. We understand people have other obligations, especially with the gruelling quarter system. We just ask that members communicate with us. The great part is that you get to “own” your task and get to make decisions yourself.

We do not just say we are open to everyone, we actually are. You can check out all our meeting times on our website, you can join our Discord server, or meet our members at campus outreach events (library walk tabling, EOTG). We want to help the greater engineering community outside of UCSD. We visit San Diego fairs and schools, publish documentation and tutorials publicly on our wiki, publish a whitepaper of our work, and license our code as Free Software.

I like that our projects are not 4 year long rockets that may end up blowing up. Our iteration has allowed me to learn so much more and experiment with many different parts of our systems. Other schools and other clubs have horrible interview processes. For example, UCB is infamous for clubs having several rounds of interviews. UCSD's main rocketry club, SEDS, asked me brainteasers in the interview. I joined SEDS and Triton Robotics for about a week each. Both clubs gave me horrible first impressions. The Triton Robotics software lead did not know anything. He was only into computer vision and pawning off tasks without giving any help. SEDS has literally zero software. They jebaited me saying there was something to work on, but they just wanted me to do CRUD work. I would have been making software to view launch logs and support the ground control station. The lead for the project I was assigned to did not know any software himself. Also, they cancelled the project I worked on the next year (cubesat), so I dodged a bullet. The rocket clubs are MATLAB enjoyers and don't want any software engineering. If I remember correctly, neither Triton Robotics nor SEDS were using git when I joined. Also it's stupid that SEDS has 100k in funding yet still begs community members for money and charges fees to students.

I joined Triton UAS at the beginning of my freshman year. At first it was incredibly intimidating because I quickly realized that there was a lot of software knowledge that I just didn't have: I had never used a Linux command line, never used Git branches or GitHub Pull requests, and never used any of the programming languages TUAS used. But it never was insurmountable, and I was encouraged every step of the way. It might have taken me an entire quarter to make my first contribution, but it never felt like I wasn't making progress. Every week I was learning new things, getting good feedback, and feeling more and more like a member of the team. The camaraderie really got me through the worst of the pandemic, and made me feel like I had a community at UCSD when I had barely even seen the campus. Now, as a Software lead, whenever I see a new member that wants to join the club, I always make it a high priority to ensure that I put in as much effort to helping them get started as I can. I feel a strong motivation to give back to the club, and help mentor the next generation of TUAS members.

7. Culture

The leads are so kind. I have seen that when people see notice someone struggling, they band together to raise the struggling person up. I saw this camaraderie when the software team switched the core flight controller to C++ from Python. To do this, we switched to the CMake build system. We were all unfamiliar with setting up C++ project infrastructure and had to figure out many things. Together, we succeeded against The Great CMake War (c. 2024).

We have open documentation, actively share, and encourage people to attend other subteams’ meetings. I have so much secondhand knowledge about carbon fiber molding from watching and listening to explanations from airframe members. People who have spent thousands of hours on ANSYS modelling entertain my dumb questions. The team is so open minded to new ideas, even from inexperienced members.

This year we were weighing whether to add VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) to our plane. We needed to make the decision judiciously as has huge implications on both software and hardware. The team came together and openly presented the pro and con considerations at our town halls. We did not devolve into a war between the two sides and did not do this through democracy. All the debate was done in public for anyone to add to, and then the team project manager made the ultimate decision. I like that we trust others’ decisions in TUAS. Instead of silos for each subteam, we have cohesive all hands “townhall” meetings to make sure everyone is on the same page. We have necessary hierarchy because leads need to make choices for cross-subteam projects quickly.

I have not seen any other club that solicits member feedback so much. TUAS sends member CAPES, an evaluation form to give feedback on your experience in the club. Feedback is constantly being asked for and being shared at our townhall meetings.

TUAS is not all serious decision making. There is so much fun club lore and our business team does a fantastic job organization social events and fundraisers. These are some schenanigans that we have definitely not done:

  • shorted the electrical board on carbon fiber, setting the plane on fire
  • worked in the lab overnight
  • set the world record for any% fastest Tapex order
  • made a Tapex time leaderboard
  • run regression algorithms to predict Tapex order numbers
  • carved the Tapex logo into a pumpkin
  • flown bread
  • there are NO easter eggs at all in our ground control station software
  • gotten a plane prop stuck on the motor
  • eaten 1000 oreos
  • gone to Tuas
  • played Minecraft in a hotel until 4am
  • snacked on packing peanuts
  • canary in the Jacob’s mine
  • 1 inch thick exploding laptops
  • amogus world record
  • yummy orange fumes tier list

Being around other TUAS people is so fun. Going to a school with 40,000 students, I’m accustomed to encountering people randomly and in classes and never seeing them again. But with TUAS, you are growing with the other people. It’s so awesome to be around other curious people who are interested in hearing about what you are working on and meeting people who are passionate about learning. In a huge campus, the TUAS lab feels more like home than my apartment does.

Things that fly are cool. When I was a freshman, I had to choose if I wanted to spend my time with TritonUAS or Rocket Propulsion Lab (RPL) and I'm very glad I chose TUAS. It's been easy to move between projects and work on things that I'm interested in, starting out in Software, moving to Airframe/Mechanical and eventually leading Business team. I also love going on test flights and hanging out with team members! At a test flight, there's usually a period of mucking around (sometimes literally, in mud) and downtime as the aircraft gets checked over by different team members. We like to spend this time playing cards on the airplane wings or watching family guy funny moments on our custom ground station. Once the plane is ready for take-off, everyone watches and records with bated breath. No matter how routine the flight, takeoff and landing are always a bit nerve-wracking! After each test flight, we usually go get food as a team and this always feels great, especially if you have class later that day. A morning adventure always makes the day feel longer. Something else that I really value about TUAS is the amount of experimentation and discovery we do together. Trying new things and pushing the envelope is the everyday experience. Just this year we've discovered and implemented many awesome manufacturing techniques and designs that are highly applicable to industry practice.

8. Career Opportunities

The culture in TUAS has shown me that these people are in this club because of their passion and not for the resume line item. Nevertheless, the experience is a boon for our future careers. Interviewers often ask me about my work in TUAS, and TUAS has led to me scoring an internship. I know many of our members have gotten jobs at aviation and engineering companies because this club experience sets them apart from people who only know theoretical course material. The effect of TUAS on career outcomes is clear if you look at out alumni.

9. Alumni

You get opportunities to interact with alumni of the club, who have gone onto great graduate programs, founded successful startups, and worked their dream jobs at JPL. While a student, it’s great to have the mentorship of elder students who have gone through the same path as you. Beyond graduation, you can get advice from people who have gone down different paths.

10. And Takeoff

I’ll mention this again. But launching at the end of the year is so fun. The first successful full-system integration test is pure euphoria.

I went from knowing nothing about planes to making one of the coolest things I have ever seen.

Getting to go to the SUAS competition was an exhilarating experience. There's so much tension building up to the mission demonstration. A whole year of work all down to 30 minutes. However, amidst all the stress that comes with that, it was amazing to be there with the team and see all our hard work pay off.

11. Mentoring

A last bonus benefit: After making it through your first competition year, you are no longer a rookie. It is an amazing journey slowly becoming the expert that you looked up to as a rookie. We are here to help each other out.

TUAS can be stressful. Dealing with deadline and scrambling as things break during testing can start to consume all your time. But we have bonded and become better engineers, better teammates, and better people having come through the other side.

For all these reasons, the TUAS lab holds a special place in my heart. All the work we have done together and all the people I have met will always stay with me.

You can choose to spend your time anywhere, but you’ll be glad to have spent it with us.

Join us near the start of any quarter. See you in the skies.

This post is inspired by a post from the MIT rocketry team. Check out this post with my unofficial, personal commentary.