Student group promotes interdisciplinary collaboration to build drones

This unmanned aerial vehicle uses 3D Robotics and a Nvidia tegra GPU processor. Its eight propellers provide redundancy and safety in the event of a motor failure. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After hours of battling a tenacious wildfire, fueled by wind and dry climate, a firefighter takes a moment to re-hydrate, then suddenly realizes he has lost his way in the forest the fire has taken over. He sends a radio signal and after just a few moments, a small drone flies overhead, drops a bottle of water down to him, and shows the search and rescue team where he is located.

Students competing in the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's Student Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS) competition, hosted at Maryland's Patuxent River Naval Air Station, are working on creating a vehicle that will do just this — fly autonomously, avoid areas where the rescue helicopters are flying, identify and read plywood signs, and locate and deliver water to the firefighter. Jonathan Ready, who founded Penn State’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) team, is leading the charge.   

Ready, a junior from State College, was inspired to create UAS after visiting another university that had a similar program that allowed students from various disciplines to work on the project together.

As a sophomore, Ready started the Penn State group, securing lab space in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, securing funding, visiting classrooms to recruit students, and bringing Vijay Narayanan, distinguished professor of computer science and engineering in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, on as the group’s faculty adviser.

“Inspiring students to apply their skills outside the classroom in unstructured environments is vital for their lifelong success,” said Narayanan. “Student organization activities are a wonderful way for our students to work together as a team while contributing their individual technical skills. Design of intelligent unmanned aerial vehicles applies many core principles taught in computer science and engineering and is also an activity that can help others in the community to understand different ways in which computing touches our daily lives.”

Ready has built the club to encompass a number of disciplines to play key parts in the creation of the unmanned aerial vehicles. The group has 27 members from computer science, electrical engineering, aerospace engineering and mechanical engineering majors. The students are able to use the knowledge they’ve gained from their various curriculums to play a vital role in building the drone.

“The Penn State mission is to promote interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Ready. “Each person on the team adds perspective to how to get the work done. We have to trust each other to do a good job.”

In addition to finding space, building a team and fundraising, Ready was also able to secure a Vue Pro from FLIR Systems Inc. The commercial-grade camera is built like a military-grade camera used in drones flown by militaries around the world, but it has not been tested to military specifications, so it is sold commercially.

According to David Lee, the marketing communications manager for FLIR Systems, based in Oregon, the corporation has donated a number of cameras to student efforts in robotics and engineering over the years in an effort to familiarize students at universities and trade schools with their technology, since it has the potential to be more prevalent in coming years.

The donation was a huge bonus to the Penn State team, as they continue to fine-tune their craft for the competition, with support from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

“Our responsibility as a department is to foster such initiatives and provide an environment for students, so that they can gain valuable experience outside of the classroom, which prepares them for their future careers,” explained John Hannan, associate professor of computer science and engineering, who has been a major advocate for the group. “The UAS group provides students with an opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary team, applying the knowledge and skills they acquire in the classroom to do what engineers do: design and build exciting artifacts and products that solve difficult problems.”

Ready said that while they are focused on the SUAS competition, which takes place June 14-17, they hope to compete in other competitions, like the International Aerial Robotics Challenge, which is designed to encourage new methods for drones to perceive their environments. 

Students who want to get involved with UAS can contact Ready at, visit the team’s website, or find them on Facebook.

A team photo of the Unmanned Aerial Systems team at Penn State, seen through the thermal imaging camera donated by FLIR Systems Inc. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated January 24, 2017