With laptops open and hands nervously poised above the keyboards, three college students waited in the middle of a runway at Webster Outlying Field in St. Inigoes, ready for the words that would send them into action.

"Gentlemen, start your computers!"

Amid a flurry of tapping keyboards, another teammate started the propeller of a miniature yellow airplane until it rattled down the runway and into the air.

These student engineers from Polytechnic University in New York were among eight college teams that came to St. Mary's County last weekend to plot out simulated targets -- missiles, tanks and missile launchers -- for the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) they had designed and built. It was part of the second annual Student UAV Competition hosted by the Association for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles International (AUVSI).

The students' vehicles had to be capable of autonomous missions and of recording images of targets, or "waypoints," scattered by the judges around the Navy airfield. Prize money totaled $10,000, and winners included Virginia Commonwealth University, first place; Istanbul Technical University in Turkey, second place; and Texas A&M University, third place.

In the 40 minutes allotted, each team had to identify six waypoints on the ground and provide an image of them to the four judges. How they did this was up to them as long as they followed Defense Department requirements.

Some teams, such as Polytechnic, attached a small digital camera to the UAV cabin to record images and then downloaded the data after the UAV landed.

Others, such as the team from Istanbul, had more complicated systems that could transfer data in real time during the flight.

Each team that entered the competition received a MicroPilot flight control device worth $5,000, but all other funds and equipment had to be raised through their own efforts.

The team from North Carolina State University in Raleigh raised $50,000, with almost $40,000 more in equipment donations, said Sean Angermuller of Wilmington, N.C. Some of the sources of contributions were evident in the company logos teams pasted to their UAVs.

By Navy standards, the student-made UAVs were simple and inexpensive. But one of the objectives of the contest is to help the Navy develop low-cost ideas.

"[The students] try to create a very cheap vehicle with cheap systems," said Robert Behler, a retired major general and now an engineer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, who served as a judge. "It shows people like me that are working in this field some creative ways to do things."

The student engineers were not only field-testing their UAVs but also themselves; they distributed resumes to the competition's sponsors, which included Northrop Grumman Corp. and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.

"I'm impressed you can come from an academic environment and have such practical skills," said Rick Greer, a communications engineer from Hollywood. "We think that some of these kids are the best of the best in engineering, and we need people with UAV experience."

UAV is a growing technology, with applications that include reconnaissance, border patrol and communications, Behler said. UAVs controlled from California are flying over Iraq, he said.

But failure was part of the UAV competition learning process. Two teams, including one from the University of Texas at Arlington, could not compete because their UAVs crashed in a practice run.

In the case of Polytechnic University, the UAV failed to meet one requirement: autonomous flight. When working properly, the UAVs in the competition are controlled by preprogrammed flight plans that they are able to follow by exchanging signals with Global Positioning System devices.

The Polytechnic plane nose-dived as the team tried to shift into autonomous flight, forcing team members to revert to manual control for the rest of the mission.

North Carolina State team members also had to manually fly their UAV, which was a backup plane, after the UAV on which they had worked for more than a year crashed two weeks earlier in a practice run, Angermuller said.

Angermuller, who also took part in the competition last year, said his participation has led to a job with an aerospace company.

"There is no way I would have gotten this job if I hadn't been here," he said.

The potential opportunities yielded by the competition attracted the Turkish team.

"We feel quite relaxed here," said Goekhan Koyuncu, a graduate student. "Everybody seems almost at the same level."

Judging was based on a scoring system that evaluated each team's 20-page paper, an oral presentation and the flight. Criteria included takeoff, autonomous control, waypoint navigation and efficiency.

The Santa Clara University team's unmanned aerial vehicle, top, lands after finishing its flight at Webster Outlying Field. Above, Jared Allen of Mississippi State University holds the wing as Eddie Smith, center, and Christopher Martin make adjustments to the team's UAV.