UC Merced Connect: Lab probes pilotless flight

February 19, 2013 

Peek in the windows at the Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation lab sometime. You'll probably see students flying small remote-controlled vehicles at all hours of the day and night.

Sometimes the students are having so much fun they have to be pushed to go home and sleep.

But what seems like a hobby or diversion is actually serious research.

The students are learning to fly these small vehicles indoors so they can better understand how to manipulate the flight patterns of unmanned aerial vehicles that will be used outdoors.

The plan is to use the UAVs, which are programmed for specific autonomous flights instead of being remote controlled by users, in many different ways, from monitoring agricultural fields to detecting natural gas leaks along miles of pipelines.

Students are working to refine systems that deliver precision technology to a wider variety of users.

For example, farms could use the small planes to monitor crop growth, soil health and moisture levels. They could even deliver extra fertilizer to areas of fields that need special care.

"This is not a dream. It's very possible," said School of Engineering professor YangQuan Chen, who runs the lab. "We are finding ways to bring technology to the people who need it."

Using UAVs would allow a company or agency to monitor conditions that would take a person much more time and effort.

The UAVs are small, with wingspans of 3 feet to 10 feet, and can easily access remote areas and carry high-tech equipment, including high-resolution cameras and sensors.

Western Pacific studies

Sharon Patris likes spending time at a lake in the middle of the forest on an uninhabited island in the western Pacific.

The lake named Ongiem'l Tketau and informally known as Jellyfish Lake, is home to the golden jellyfish, a species Patris studies as part of her work with School of Natural Sciences professor Michael Dawson in Palau.

Patris, who is working on her master's degree, is one example of the diverse and wide-ranging reach of UC Merced graduate programs. As a Palauan, she said she's happy to have the chance to work in her homeland while earning her advanced degree from a UC campus.

Dawson and colleagues have been studying biodiversity in the western Pacific since 1995. A grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in 2005 enabled the Coral Reef Research Foundation in Palau, where Dawson was working at the time, to hire and train a Palauan in the conservation biology of marine lakes.

Patris was finishing her bachelor's degree in Boston when she met Dawson and got the position.

"I had been working with professor Dawson on the marine lakes project for three years after finishing my undergrad studies and I wanted to continue in graduate school," Patris said.

She monitors Jellyfish Lake as well as 17 other lake and ocean sites. She and others on her team document temperature, salinity, oxygen and pH in the water, catch and count the jellyfish and zooplankton, which the jellyfish eat.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the university's communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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