For years, Jeremy Laliberté has been working on ways to apply drone technology to real-world issues. This summer, the Carleton engineering professor put his ideas to the test with a student from Mexico who helped devise a drone that will help small-scale farmers improve the health of their crops.
“I had a couple of students who formed a company to do agriculture stuff with UAVs,” says Laliberté, associate professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in Carleton’s research-intensive Faculty of Engineering and Design. “That got me thinking we could do something like that for smaller farmers.”
Over the summer, Laliberté collaborated with 22-year-old Mexican engineering student, Krissia Quesney Nevarez, to design a low-cost drone that measures photosynthesis in plants using a modified action camera similar to a GoPro.
“This aircraft has GPS, so it will fly a fixed pattern over the field and take pictures every so many seconds,” Laliberté says.
The data collected from the images can then be used to determine the health of the crop and whether a farmer should adjust water or fertilizer use, says Quesney Navarez, one of 22 international undergraduate students who visited Carleton this summer through a 12-week Mitacs Globalink Research Internship.
Each year, Mitacs matches students from around the world with university researchers in Canada to work on projects from science to engineering to the humanities.
“Her background is from a farm family and having electrical engineering experience from her undergrad fit really well with the project,” Laliberté says.
Quesney Nevarez, whose family lost most of their crops this year due to a drought, wants to use her skills to improve agriculture technology for farmers around the world.
“My father’s entire life has been dedicated to this way of life (farming),” she says. “I know by first-hand experience that it’s so hard to live from this in my country because we don’t have access to many technologies.”
During her internship with Laliberté, Quesney Navarez used 3D-printed brackets to integrate the camera with the drone. She then flew it in the lab to test different propellers, battery consumption and how the weight of the camera would affect the drone’s normal capabilities.
“She’d never flown a drone before, never used a 3D printer before, so it was good experience for her to get exposed to this stuff,” Laliberté says.
Darren Penley, an aerospace engineering master’s student who is part of Laliberté’s research team at Carleton, had a chance to work with Quesney Navarez while testing the drone’s performance in the lab.
“There’s a lot of brainstorming and trying to be creative and thinking outside the box rather than just slapping something on and saying, ‘Good enough,’” Penley says.
While his master’s research focuses on improving the intelligence of drones and isn’t directly related to Quesney Navarez’s project, he says the opportunity to share ideas with someone from a different background has been beneficial to his own learning.
“It’s kind of a give-take thing on both sides,” he says, adding that the students learned things from each other’s projects that they could apply to their own research.
Not only will Quesney Navarez be able to apply the skills she’s learned at home in Mexico, but her research project will continue at Carleton. Laliberté plans to work with a handful of biology and engineering students who will be testing the drones on plants grown under controlled conditions in the lab.
“It’s opened up a whole new set of possibilities,” Laliberté says.