UNL professors receive grant to fund water drones project

dronesBirds will soon have company when they fly over water.

Two computer science and engineering professors at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received a three-year grant worth $956,210 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The grant will lead a project that will create an aerial vehicle that can collect water samples from lakes, streams and ponds.

Carrick Detweiler, a computer science and engineering assistant professor, and Sebastian Elbaum, a computer science and engineering professor, co-direct UNL’s Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab, which works on a variety of projects dealing with aerial robots known as drones.

Detweiler said the initial ideas came from a class project to see if it were possible to safely fly a drone system close to water. He said most of the projects done in the lab focus on making small, aerial robots more reliable, especially when they’re directly interacting with the environment. The NIMBUS Lab is collaborating with UNL’s School of Natural Resources and the University of California, Berkeley on the project.

The unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is programmed by software that allows the vehicle to fly by itself and collect water samples. The UAV flies over the water, drops a clear tube into the lake, stream or pond and sucks up the water and deposits it into one of three vials that are under the UAV’s hub.

He said the team from the lab talked with other scientists to find a focus for the project.

“We realized that tasks such as water sampling are extremely challenging and realized this was a good opportunity to work on a very hard project, from the robotics prospective, that could also have great impact on the sciences,” Detweiler said.

He said Amy Burgin, an aquatic ecologist and limnologist at the School of Natural Resources, teaches a class where students take water samples from the Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area. Detweiler said the cluster of 20 lakes held toxins a few years ago that led to several dogs’ deaths. He said Burgin’s class takes many samples from these lakes, which takes a lot of effort and time.

“Their current process is every other week they take samples from about 10 of these lakes, and it takes them 12 to 16 hours,” he said. “With the type of system we’re developing, you could send the UAV to all the lakes while you are in a central location, and with an hour or two, you could have all the samples.”

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