Tucked away in a garage-like room on the former Castle Air Force Base, a team of undergraduate and graduate students toil at making drones better at collecting data, and a recent development could be big step toward that goal.
Though there are 18 projects running parallel with each other, none has a military application, and that’s the way the team likes it. “We’re not spying on you,” said Brandon Stark, the lab manager. “We’re spying on cows and plants.”
Drones have a dubious reputation, but they don’t have to, he said. UC Merced’s team is working to use drones to make data collection easier for farmers, environmentalists and firefighters, to name a few who could benefit from the unmanned aerial vehicle.
The lab recently gained clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly its AggieAir Minion DC1 drone at the Merced County Radio Control Club’s field south of Atwater. Stark, a 29-year-old doctoral student from Tracy who’s majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, said he expects to receive permission to do the same over the university’s protected land, which includes 6,500 acres of grassland and vernal pools.
A sizable amount of work was required to get the FAA’s permission, Stark said, and having it makes UC Merced the only school in the University of California system with its own space. Now the team can do its research at will.
Their research could be important in agriculture-heavy Merced County, as some drones are used to survey crop land. Eventually, they will be used regularly to survey individual plants. The drones fly over fields taking traditional photos and “near infrared” photos, a type of infrared that is particularly good for studying vegetation.
Taken about every five seconds, the photos are put together to make a three-dimensional map of the area. The researchers can already use the near infrared photography and other data to identify plant species. The next goal is to take readings on which parts of an orchard are not doing well to identify the cause – water stress, high nitrates or pests.
“Having a more detailed scope on our images and more detailed look into our field, we can look to help to alleviate some of that variability and give a more consistent crop yield,” Stark said.
The laboratory is also a hands-on training ground for mechanical engineering students.
Brendan Smith, 24, a doctoral student from Los Angeles, works primarily with the Aquacopter, a four-propellered drone made to land on a body of water and take water samples. Life forms in the water leave behind DNA and researchers can use it to estimate animal populations in the water.
Smith has interned in Silicon Valley and China, among other places. He was thinking about working full time, but then ran across the drone lab and decided to pursue his doctoral degree.
“I found this lab and fell in love with it,” he said. “I actually had no idea about (drones) until I joined the lab.”
His next project will be using a drone to collect air samples, which can be tested for its likelihood to cause Valley fever.
Dan Hirleman, dean of UC Merced’s School of Engineering, said the university’s use of drones and development of new technology could set it apart from other schools.
“We’re kind of at the ground zero for a lot of what’s going on in those areas,” he said. “It’s just a perfect fit with our sustainability theme and the application area.”
The research could also become a factor in attracting elite students to the university, he said, because it’s advanced and “captures your imagination.” The drones will likely become more common in any industry needing to collect environmental data.
Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, wouldn’t speculate on the potential for the use of drones in Merced County agriculture. But she can remember questions about global-positioning systems and their usefulness for farmers more than a decade ago, and said they are now an essential piece of farming.