Engineering and the Environment

  • ASTRA investigates new technologies for making low cost observations of the physical parameters of the atmosphere.
  • Group project: Design, build and test your own UAV

MSc Unmanned Aircraft Systems Design

The unmanned aircraft systems industry (sometimes referred to as Drones, UAVs, UAS, or RPAS)  is currently undergoing explosive growth; as a result there is an increased demand for unmanned aircraft systems designers. Our MSc in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Design programme has been created to provide graduate engineers with the necessary skills and knowledge to design all types of unmanned aircraft systems (typically less than 20 kg).

Programme Overview

The University of Southampton has a strong reputation in Autonomous Systems with many world firsts including: SULSA, the first 3D printed plane; the development of a DARPA winning entry to UAVForge and the world's first affordable maritime surveillance unmanned air vehicle 2SEAS.

This course offers a sound understanding of the relevant fundamental science, methods, analysis and engineering applications. Students design and build a sophisticated unmanned system in the course of their studies and have access to rapid prototyping and testing facilities to put their designs through mission validation. 

The emphasis of this course will focus on the design of the vehicle itself rather than the wider systems such as ground station, infrastructure, and software associated with navigation and communications. 

The course also focuses on civil and commercial applications of unmanned systems. Although some of the teaching material may make reference to military technology the course will not cover military, defence or weapon specific systems. 

The aim of this MSc course is to:

  • Provide graduate engineers with the necessary skills and knowledge to become unmanned aircraft systems designers.
  • Give students realistic experience in undertaking a full conceive, design, build, operate development cycle.
  • Provide students with the ability to undertake an individual project where they can undertake a deep exploration of a research topic relevant to unmanned systems.
  • Encourage students to explore innovative, but possibly high risk, design solutions that might not be possible within a commercial setting.
  • Allow students to undertake a specialist role within a team and to understand and actively influence the interactions between a wide variety of electro-mechanical systems and disciplines.
  • Give students a detailed framework and methodology that allows them to undertake realistic trade-offs between capability, unit cost and life cycle cost.
  • Provide flexible learning through a wide choice of options. An advanced knowledge of Unmanned Systems.
  • An understanding of the use, and an appreciation of the limitations, of computational analysis and design tools in the development of Unmanned Systems.

Also, the course aims to

  • Enable you to acquire advanced knowledge and practical skills needed for a professional career in your chosen specialist theme and to provide you with specialist knowledge and skills relevant to that theme.
  • Enhance your transferable skills, including critical analysis, problem solving, project management, decision making, leadership, and communication by oral, visual and/or written means.
  • Equip you with specialist knowledge, scientific and technical expertise and research skills for further research and/or application in the design of unmanned systems.

We are well located in the South East of the UK, where there is a strong aerospace industry. The following organisations provide support for the course with projects, case studies and guest lectures.

  • Tekever
  • QinetiQ
  • DSTL
  • Cobham
  • Rolls-Royce
  • Roke
  • Thales
  • AV8 UAS Solutions Ltd

To Apply

You can do it through the University of Southampton's online postgraduate application system. For more background and detailed information, see How to Apply.

The deadline for new applications to this course is the 31st July each year.


Accredited by the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) on behalf of the Engineering Council as meeting the requirements for Further Learning for registration as a Chartered Engineer. Candidates must hold a CEng accredited BEng/BSc (Hons) undergraduate first degree to comply with full CEng registration requirements.

Programme Structure

Full-time study

The full-time MSc programme lasts for 12 months. The first 8 months are normally spent mainly on the taught component, with lectures divided into two 12-week periods (Semesters 1 and 2), and with exams at the end of each semester. The final 4 months are spent full-time on a research project, for which some preparation is done in Semester 2.

The taught component comprises a number of modules totalling 120 credit points. Among these, 90 credit points are compulsory, with 30 credits being selected from the optional list in the Modules section. Suitable alternative modules, perhaps from other programmes, may be substituted in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the Programme Organiser.

Part time study is not available for this programme.

Exit Points

The taught component of the MSc programme is assessed independently of the research project component. Progression to the research project depends on successful completion of the taught component. The MSc award depends on passing the examinations and on successful completion of a dissertation on the project. The possible exit points are:

PG Certificate (60 Credit Points)
PG Diploma (120 Credit Points)
MSc (180 Credit Points)

We only accept applications to the 180 Credit MSc course. The PG Diploma and PG Certificate are exit points only and are not standalone qualifications.

Key facts

  • Attend flight school and receive advanced training leading to the possibility of a pilot qualification recognised by the UK CAA.

  • Design, build and fly your own unmanned vehicle on our MSc course in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Design.

  • This MSc is supported by a number of major UK companies including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ and Cobham.

Entry requirements

Typical entry requirements

Honours Degree

This MSc course is aimed primarily at people with mechanical or aerospace engineering degrees. However, well qualified and motivated applicants with other degrees (for example electronics) will be considered. The admissions criteria will allow such individuals but they will be encouraged to undertake a suitably amended syllabus to ensure they acquire the necessary base skills.

Upper second class honours degree (2:1 or equivalent) in Engineering, Mathematics, Physical Sciences or a related subject. Those candidates with relevant employment experience will be considered if they do not meet the requirements. Applications are assessed individually, and any candidates who do not match the standard profile but who have appropriate academic qualifications and/or industry experience are encouraged to apply.


Equivalent Qualifications

Relevant employment experience would be considered if a candidate does not meet the formal qualifications requirements. We are always happy to receive applications from candidates with equivalent qualifications. If you are unsure about our entry criteria, please contact our admissions staff who would be happy to provide advice in advance of your application.

English Language requirements

If your first language is not English, we need to ensure that your listening, written and spoken English skills would enable you to enjoy the full benefit of your studies. For entry onto our programmes, you will need an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score of 6.5 or an equivalent qualification.

Selection process:

Intake: 20

All individuals are selected and treated on their relative merits and abilities in line with the University’s Equal Opportunities Policy. Disabled applicants will be treated according to the same procedures as any other applicant with the added involvement of the Disability Office to assess their needs. The programme may require adaptation for students with disabilities (e.g. hearing impairment, visual impairment, mobility difficulties, dyslexia), particularly the practical laboratory sessions, and we will attempt to accommodate students wherever possible.

Visit our International Office website or the NARIC website for further information on qualifications.


Typical course content

The central modules aim to cover topics that directly relate to and enable students to design the vehicle platform. Hence fluids, structures, design, materials manufacturing and reliability are covered in the core. It is expected that students should have studied these topics at undergraduate level. Where this is not the case students will be expected to undertake other modules and remedial work to bring them up to the necessary level.

Year 1

The first eight months are normally spent mainly on the taught component, with lectures divided into two 12-week periods (Semesters 1 and 2), and with exams at the end of each semester.

The final four months are spent full-time on an Individual Project, which accounts for 60 credit points, six of which are allocated to an oral presentation.

Group Design Project

The Group Design Project enables students to undertake a full design/build/test cycle for a given Unmanned Systems Design brief within a multidisciplinary team of students. Students will be put into small teams. Each team will be given a civil or commercial mission specification. They will then have a number of milestones they will have to meet, including concept generation, evaluation and selection, culminating in the construction and testing of the system in the real-world.

Autopilot systems

Each team will be issued with a sophisticated autopilot system, ground station and telemetry.

The autopilot serves two purposes. Firstly it will enable each team to accurately measure the performance of their aircraft (stall speed, maximum level speed, rate of climb etc). Secondly students will be able to write control scripts for their test flights so that all test flying can be carried out under automatic control.  This has the benefit of giving students experience of flight automation and autonomy but also allows the aircraft to fly much more accurate flight profiles than is possible under manual control.

Individual project

Each student will be required to undertake an individual project. Generally students will undertake a project of their own choosing. The individual project will start in the second semester and will be completed in September.

Examples of individual projects include:

  • Development of miniature variable pitch propulsion
  • Multi-rotor automated Li-Po battery changer
  • In-flight thrust measuring
  • Structronics
  • Automated camera control and feature recognition
  • High precision automated landing
  • Novel Low cost higher accuracy manufacturing processes
  • Hybrid Vehicles
  • Comparison of fixed and retractable undercarriages
  • High precision height sensing
  • Horizon sensing
  • Automated tracking of vehicles

Semester One

The compulsory modules total 105 credit points. You MUST select 15 credits from the optional modules below.


Please note: This specification provides a concise summary of the main features of the programme and the learning outcomes that a typical student might reasonably be expected to achieve and demonstrate if s/he takes full advantage of the learning opportunities that are provided. More detailed information can be found in the programme handbook (or other appropriate guide or website).

Learning and teaching

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this programme you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  1. Fundamental scientific principles  and concepts that underpin the discipline.
  2. Analytical and computational tools appropriate to the design of Unmanned Systems.
  3. Current problems and developments in the design of Unmanned Systems, informed by leading edge research.
  4. Essential facts, concepts and principles relevant to Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
  5. Issues, terminology and technical background sufficient to permit study of the current research literature, and to engage in meaningful discussion with peers, about critical issues within the broader field of Unmanned Systems.

At the PG Diploma level you are expected to reach broadly MSc-equivalent level for items (1), (2) and (3), with some elements of (5). At the PG Certificate level you are expected to reach PG Diploma level over a restricted range of topics.

Teaching and Learning Methods

Taught Modules

The different subject matter of the modules lends itself to different teaching and learning techniques, but these include lectures, tutorials, individual and group planning exercises and practical exercises. You are encouraged throughout to contribute your own professional experiences and thoughts to the learning of the whole class through a free exchange of ideas. One-to-one tutorials are arranged to compensate for individual learning differences, when required.

Many modules include assessed coursework assignments which require you to carry out a substantial study of selected topics, either as individuals or in groups, leading to considerable depth of understanding and specialist knowledge. Assessment is designed to show that you can rationally use taught material and have a fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Feedback on progress is given to students on all submitted work.


The following facilities will be made available to MSc students

  • UAV project lab - This is a dedicated area where unmanned systems are assembled.
  • Propulsion lab - This is a small wind tunnel specifically designed to allow the performance and dynamic thrust of UAV powerplant and propeller combinations to be tested.
  • Wind tunnels - The university has a number of large wind tunnels.
  • Manufacturing - Dedicated rapid prototyping facilities will be made available to students. These include laser cutting, CNC foam cutting, vacuum forming, ABS rapid prototyping as well as a range of typical machining facilities.
  • Professional UAV test pilot based and dedicated test flying site.
  • Powerful computer clusters to allow computationally expensive analyses to be undertaken.

Assessment Methods

Testing of the knowledge base is through a combination of unseen written examinations and assessed coursework in the form of problem solving exercises, laboratory reports, design exercises, essays, and individual and group projects.

Analysis and problem solving skills are assessed through unseen written examinations and problem based exercises. Experimental, research and design skills are assessed through laboratory reports, coursework exercises, project reports, posters, YouTube videos, oral presentations and physical testing in the real-world environment.

The tutorial system

Every student is assigned a personal tutor when they start their university degree. Your personal tutor will meet you when you enrol, and you will see him/her several times during your studies for academic as well as pastoral support. S/He is accessible throughout your time in Southampton.


We have our own team of administrators who act as a point of contact for day-to-day advice and information for undergraduate students. They are also responsible for collecting assignments and issuing the documents and forms which are required during your period of study.

Programme leader

Professor James P. Scanlan

Other staff:

The following members of academic staff will be actively involved in delivering this MSc either as teaching staff or as project supervisors.

Career Opportunities

What's relatedKey facts
  • Attend flight school and receive advanced training leading to the possibility of a pilot qualification recognised by the UK CAA.

Find out about our exisiting unmanned systems activities

Find out about our exisiting unmanned systems activities

A Blue Peter winner named and designed the livery of our latest aircraft which may be used to capture aerial TV footage in the future

A Blue Peter winner named and designed the livery of our latest aircraft which may be used to capture aerial TV footage in the future

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