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TTU News

Published: Mon Mar 5, 2012


thumb PressPhotoBob Norton, a medical aviation missionary, and six other people went missing three years ago in the jungles of the Gran Sabana in Venezuela, more than 2,000 miles from Cookeville.

Despite the distance, Tennessee Tech University engineering students are developing technology to help TTU alumnus Bob Edwards find his missing friend.

In their mechanical engineering senior capstone design course, six TTU students designed and built a launch and recovery system for a small, unmanned plane that can be used to search dense jungle or forests.

“It was a fairly successful prototype; these things are never perfect,” said Darrell Hoy, TTU professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department. “We’ll have to do some test launches. We’re not going to give it to them unless we know it works.”

Norton, his wife Neiba and five Venezuelans went missing in February 2009. Norton was flying an emergency medical mission and had eight years experience as a bush pilot. The small plane he was flying hit bad weather and he tried to send a radio message that was garbled. The plane and its occupants disappeared without a trace.

Edwards, ’89, has returned to his alma mater over the years to give guest lectures about his work with the Roper Corp. in La Fayette, Ga. He has also served on TTU’s mechanical engineering department advisory board. After his friend went missing, he started talking about the search and asking TTU students – and corporations nationwide – to help in the mission.

“This became a second job for me, trying to find my friend. I spend 10 to 20 hours a week on it,” Edwards said. “We’ve been working on sensor pods and the unmanned search plane and it came to mind to see if students would work on this kind of thing, and TTU has been great about giving students credit for working on it.”

The six students designed a small rail system to launch the unmanned search plane. The system uses bungee cords to launch the plane, like an oversized slingshot. A large net will catch it. The unmanned plane is equipped with sensors and will be controlled from the ground, once its design is completed.

One or two students will work on the refinements over the summer during a special topics course. The latch that releases the drone plane needs alteration, and the entire system needs to be lighter so one or two people can transport it and set it up.

The Norton search team recently returned to Venezuela to discuss with officials ways to bring sensors and cameras into the country to try to find the crash site, while work on the unmanned plane is still in development.

Beyond aiding in the search in Venezuela, the work of the TTU students may have repercussions with other search and rescue missions.

“I have a personal interest in search and rescue. I plan to keep in touch with Bob and I want to see the system they end up using,” said Dickson native Neil Brunett, who was one of the students who worked on the designs. “I want to see the technology involved in search and rescue missions.”

In addition to Brunett, TTU students Ben Ellis of Allardt, John Petry of Winchester, Jordan Jozwik and Ryan Schewe of Hendersonville and Will Owens of Linden worked on the project.

Several groups in the U.S., including Hamilton County Special Tactics and Rescue Services, are interested in the technology being developed by the Norton search team and see the application here in the U.S. for assisting with searches in the future.

In the capstone design course, TTU students may create their own project or work on one for an outside company. Often, there are more outside proposals than there are student groups, but Hoy said he was not surprised students chose to work on the Bob Norton search.

“These kinds of projects are always popular,” he said. “Students these days seem more motivated than ever before to do service. They’re looking to do something to help people.”

For more information about the search mission and progress, visit