Engineering and the Environment

MSc Unmanned Aircraft Systems Design (1 yrs)

The unmanned systems industry is currently undergoing explosive growth; as a result there is an increased demand for unmanned vehicle systems designers. Our Unmanned Vehicle Systems Design MSc programme has been created to provide graduate engineers with the necessary skills and knowledge to design unmanned air vehicle systems.

Programme Overview

Due to the explosive growth of the industry, unmanned aircraft systems designers are in high demand. This course has been created to provide graduate engineers with the skills and knowledge needed to design unmanned aircraft systems.

You will be taught by leaders in the field. The University has a strong reputation in autonomous systems with many world firsts including: SULSA, the first 3D printed plane and the first low-cost maritime surveillance UAV, 2SEAS.

Practical learning is a fundamental part of this one-year course. You will design, build and fly your own unmanned vehicle as part of a group design project. We provide you with access to world-class facilities to put your design through mission validation including: a UAV test pilot base and dedicated flying site, state-of-the-art wind tunnels and rapid prototyping labs. You will also have the opportunity to study for a pilot’s licence.

Your core modules will give you a solid foundation of aerospace control systems and avionics. You will master design methodologies and put these into practice. Each semester, you can select specialist modules that are aligned to your interests.

The emphasis of the course is on the design of the vehicle, rather than the wider systems such as ground station and software associated with navigation and communications. The course will explore civil and commercial applications of unmanned systems. Although some of the teaching material may reference military technology, the course will not cover military, defence or weapon-specific systems.

In addition to group work, you will undertake an individual research project. Previous examples include the development of a hybrid vehicle and a multi-rotor automated Li-Po battery changer. Our students also benefit from our many industry partnerships and external contributors, including QinetiQ and Rolls-Royce.

View the specification document for this course

To Apply

You can apply 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 course 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 courses, may be substituted in exceptional circumstances at the discretion of the Course Organiser.

Part time study is not available for this courses.

Exit Points

The taught component of the MSc course 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 sophisticated unmanned vehicle.
    • This MSc is supported by a number of major UK companies including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, QinetiQ and Cobham.
Flight testing

Flight testing

Working on UAV designs

Working on UAV designs

Design, build and test your own UAV

Design, build and test your own UAV

KRAKEN UAV project video

KRAKEN UAV project video

Find out about our existing unmanned systems activities

Find out about our existing unmanned systems activities

Southampton engineers fly SULSA the world's first printed aircraft

Southampton engineers fly SULSA the world's first printed aircraft

2Seas research project

2Seas research project

Decode research project

Decode research project

What's related

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 courses, 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 course 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 90 credit points. You must select 30 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

Teaching and learning

The range of subject matter covered in the modules calls for varied teaching and learning techniques. These will include lectures, tutorials, individual and group planning exercises and practical work. You will be encouraged to openly communicate your professional experiences, exchange ideas and knowledge share. One-to-one tutorials are also arranged to cater for individual learning differences.

Ground-breaking research

Your education will be timely and relevant while you are taught by our world-leading academics who are at the forefront of their field. This is especially important in engineering where technology is advancing rapidly. We also have a global network of companies, shared facilities and expertise to draw on to advance your learning curve.

Research project

Candidates wishing to obtain an MSc will carry out a research project and complete a dissertation. Research projects may concern any of the areas covered by the course. The research project will bring together all the acquired skills learnt on the course, and demonstrate in-depth knowledge of one or more of the subject areas studied. It will involve sourcing and gathering information, critical analysis, and evaluation and presentation skills. The project should contain your own original ideas. It should also exceed the existing standard of technical design, and address a novel problem that requires the application of new research.

Assessment and examinations

Testing is conducted 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. Experimental, research and design skills are assessed through laboratory reports, coursework exercises and oral presentations.

Student support

Every student is assigned a personal tutor from the start of their degree.


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

Course Lead

Dr Zhiwei Hu

Career Opportunities