College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

These ISU drones wouldn’t harm a fly

Written by Jens Manuel Krogstad
See the original article on the Des Moines Register website

Drones will one day dot Iowa’s skies, saving lives and improving the environment one unmanned flight at a time, dreamers at Iowa State University say.

ISU students who showed off their creations last week on campus have good reason to believe this day will come sooner rather than later. The passion projects, created by students in their spare time, range from small hand-launched drones to solar-powered aircraft. Other projects at last week’s Make to Innovate expo included Mars rovers and flight simulators.

One of those students, Adam Kaplan, 23, an ISU senior in aerospace engineering, began his CyDrone project in 2009 in a garage as an extension of his lifelong love of flying. A group of 10 students now works on it.

Kaplan said his lightweight crafts, launched by hand with a running start, are a far cry from the military drones the Iowa National Guard could remotely pilot in Des Moines starting next year. He imagines peaceful civilian uses: measuring radioactive contamination from the Japanese nuclear disaster in 2011, searching a wooded field with an infrared camera for a missing child, or locating survivors after a hurricane or flood.

Inspiration for ISU’s annual Make to Innovate expo came after the director of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, in 2010 told Congress that “to innovate, we must make,” said Rich Wlezien, chairman of ISU’s aerospace engineering department. Last week, 105 students and 15 groups showcased their work. “I believe these technologies will change the world,” Wlezien said.

Professors, students and industry representatives wandered from booth to booth last week. Silver-haired men in suits with name tags from aviation companies like Boeing and Rockwell Collins peppered students with questions.

Companies sometimes invest in student projects. Kaplan said CyDrone has received university funding and small grants from Boeing, an international aviation company. Materials for each drone cost about $3,000.

The ISU aerospace engineering department receives $6 million per year in outside research funding, Wlezien said. Top contributors are NASA, the National Science Foundation, aerospace company Pratt and Whitney, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration.

University students and hobbyists around the country are developing drones, but Kaplan said the focus and capabilities of the CyDrone are unusual. It’s affordable and adaptable to a variety of uses, and can cover wide swaths of ground thanks to a range of about five miles. The operator can always reroute the drone mid-flight or take manual control at any time.

“We want to be the jack-of-all trades” for drones, he said. “There’s no runway required, no hangar required.”

The key to public acceptance is to highlight civilian applications, Kaplan said. Public debate in recent months over military drone strikes have sparked protests from those who worry about an erosion of civil liberties.

News of drones killing Americans overseas who are suspected terrorists need to be unlinked in people’s minds with the small, hand-launched plane a local sheriff will one day pull out of the trunk of his vehicle for a rescue mission, Kaplan said.

Drones have been used for years along the border with Mexico, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Interest from local law enforcement is growing, aided by federal grants and revised FAA regulations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The group is pushing to establish legal rules, such as a warrant requirement, to protect people from constant and abusive surveillance.

Local law enforcement agencies in Iowa don’t appear to be pursuing the technology yet, said Ben Stone, executive director of the ACLU of Iowa.

National interest in the technology is strong.

Patrick Vogel, an aerospace engineer whose company does work for Boeing, drove from St. Louis to see a simulation program that allows for the design and testing of an aircraft entirely on a computer.

The potential savings in time and money are enormous, he said.

“The professor of these guys, an old friend of mine, told me I had to come up here to see this,” he said. “I’ve just been impressed beyond belief.”

The ISU graduate students who designed the simulator said they didn’t get into aerospace engineering for the money. Dave Sikorski, 25, said he and his grandfather loved to watch space shuttle launches.

His classmate, Alex Lee, 25, smiled as he recalled building bottle rockets in his youth.

Kaplan’s interest in drones comes from a childhood fascination in Sioux City with planes of all types. He said he hoped as a kid to become a commercial pilot, but Type 1 diabetes forced him to abandon that dream.

He now focuses on the CyDrone project, which he will hand off to the next generation of undergraduates when he earns his degree this spring.

“I don’t want want to say aerospace engineering was my number two, but it was a way for me to do technical work with my passion,” Kaplan said.