Another grad student and I have a few months to kill before classes start. As an exercise in programming and control theory, we want to put together a simple Easystar UAV and program it from scratch. My thought was to use the APM board + IMU shield as our basic hardware, and then just completely scrap the APM software in favor of something we'll write ourselves. What do you guys think? Is there an easier/cheaper route?
That's what I'd do. The hardware is great. The software is good, too, but you can scrap it and write your own if you want!
I would do something with ailerons, though. You could learn more about aerodynamics and aircraft control that way.