They are known for their military applications, but there are many more uses for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones. From agriculture to architecture, Carleton University researchers have been studying how these remotely piloted air vehicles can be used in other ways to solve real-world problems.
“UAVs can do the dull, dirty and dangerous,” says Jeremy Laliberte, an assistant professor in Carleton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “It’s not a new concept . . . but it has taken off in the last decade.”
Part of Laliberte’s research is on micro UAVs – which are about the size of an insect and can be used in applications such as studying wildlife. He works with other experts on campus, including Jeff Dawson from the Department of Biology, and Alan Steele in the Department of Electronics.
Steele is developing low-cost open hardware tools that will allow users to obtain information from a micro UAV, as well as a system that would show the motions and areas where the UAV has travelled.
“It’s like a little black box,” he says.
Laliberte’s research also focuses on UAV airframes, structures and autopilot systems – and he co-ordinates his department’s fourth-year engineering final assignment, the Capstone projects.
Two of the nine Capstone projects include various types of research with UAVs, he says, that can sometimes continue into a student’s graduate work.
Brian Rutkay, who is working toward his master’s degree in applied science in aerospace engineering, has spent the last couple of years developing software to design propellers for UAVs that could be modified to produce quiet propellers for researching wildlife in Canada’s North.
“If you’re flying a plane at a low altitude, (it) makes a lot of noise and can scare animals,” he says. “The idea is you can non-intrusively monitor wildlife.”
Carleton students – from first year to graduate school – also work on UAVs outside the classroom as part of the Blackbird UAV Team.
Founded in 2009, the team is an extracurricular activity that further develops a UAV and successfully competes annually in the Unmanned Systems Canada Student UAS Competition.
In this year’s competition, members used their UAV to search a kilometre by half-kilometre area to identify makers symbolizing targets, people, vehicles and crops affected by an oil spill.
Robert Williams, a 23-year-old master’s student, heads the Blackbird UAV Team at Carleton.
“It’s really an opportunity for students, primarily in years one to three of engineering, to get involved in a true aviation-related engineering project,” Williams says.
He adds that he thinks UAVs are becoming more in demand – particularly in agriculture, where farmers can use UAVs to see how their crops are doing.
Two recent Carleton graduates are using UAVs in agriculture as the basis of their new business.
Chris Polowick, along with former student Curtis Parks, worked with UAVs throughout school until they received their master’s degrees in 2013.
The pair started their own company, NGF Geomatics Inc., where they offer UAV helicopters in the oil, gas and agriculture industries.
In agriculture, the pair use UAVs to fly over larger farms with special camera showing which areas of crops are unhealthy.
“It allows farmers to do more targeted farming,” Polowick says.
In the oil and gas industry, the business partners have gone to Alberta to map areas – even beneath forests –to help companies perform jobs such as build roads.
But UAVs can also play a role in architecture and historic sites – such as capturing aerial photos to assess a building’s roof, according to Mario Santana Quintero.
“In many buildings, usually everything goes when the roof is broken,” says Santana Quintero, an assistant professor of architectural conservation and sustainability. “With a UAV, you can just fly it over the roof and it can look at it.”
UAVs are equipped with thermal cameras, he says, and they could potentially be used to display where energy is escaping from a roof – helping to find the best possible maintenance actions.
In the future, he hopes to have his students work with UAVs.
“I’ve started to see the use of them in our field, and gradually we’re going to see more and more applications.’’
Jean-Daniel Medjo, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering, has been using simulations to research how a group of 10 to 30 drones could maintain reliable wireless communication while travelling at a very high speed, forming a temporary airborne network – a temporary communication service in emergencies.
He says the focus of his research is on using UAVs to solve real-world problems or help in catastrophic events, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when millions in the southern United States were left without phone and Internet service.
“They can be used for good or bad, just like anything,” he says. “There are a wide range of applications that can benefit from our research – including humanitarian applications.”