UC Merced

UC Merced Connect: MESA Lab students gaining recognition

Professor YangQuan Chen has many reasons to be proud of his Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation Lab.

Besides being extremely popular – so popular the lab has to turn away applicants – the lab now has nine Federal Aviation Administration certificates to fly unmanned aerial vehicles around the Central Valley. But perhaps the best reason is the success of the students, who are being recognized and honored for the work they do in the MESA Lab.

Graduate student Tiebiao Zhao, lab manager Brandon Stark and undergraduate researcher Jacqueline Clow took third place in the Food Systems Innovations category at the annual Berkeley Big Ideas competition. Their project, known as the SmartMelonDrone, uses software the team developed on low-cost UAVs to help manage the quantity and quality of melon produce.

Zhao, whose doctorate work is in precision agriculture, said he and his colleagues are working with the UC Merced branch of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society on commercialization.

We want to help farmers save water and be better able to understand what is happening to their crops.

Graduate student Tiebiao Zhao

The UAV platform uses multispectral imaging and image post-analysis software to detect nitrogen stress and water stress, monitor pests, estimate yields, monitor small-animal activity and more, to provide information to growers so they can make more informed decisions about field management.

“There are so many opportunities in precision ag, especially here,” Zhao said. “We’re just trying to help.”

Stark and graduate student Brendan Smith won a $1,000 award from the UC Natural Reserve System to use UAVs to map the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, the more than 6,500 acres of protected land adjacent to campus.

“There are still a lot of areas out there that we have not seen,” Stark said. “We’ve already made some interesting discoveries. For example, we found places where it’s possible someone had tried to cultivate the soil for growing crops.”

The project will create an elevation model of the land and help predict where the rare vernal pools will form. Using high-resolution cameras, the drone can take pictures of every square inch of the reserve.

Stark also won an Interdisciplinary Small Grant from the Graduate Division for work with professor Nicola Lercari, a faculty member in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts.

“We’re helping to preserve cultural heritage sites by combining terrestrial laser scanning in 3-D, and adding drones to the project so we can cover bigger areas and hard-to-reach areas,” Stark said.

Undergraduate researcher Garrett John took first place in the Research Week 90-Second Video Challenge for his pitch for air quality control using drones to sample for the pathogen that causes Valley fever.

And undergraduate Huong Phan took first place in the School of Engineering Undergraduate Student Poster Competition, and placed second overall and first in the Best in Health category in the Mobile App Challenge for SpineWatch, which uses sensor technology embedded in a vest to monitor spinal health and warn against movements that can contribute to back problems or further complications from scoliosis.

“It uses a mobile app, so the wearer can decide how he or she wants to be alerted,” Pham said. “I’d love to take it to hospitals and clinics for people with back problems, or prevent scoliosis in young girls by helping them monitor their movements.”

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