Drone research soars into uncharted territory

Other UC campuses have drone research programs, but UC Merced might be the only one with two certificates of authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing students to fly autonomous, unmanned systems at higher altitudes and, possibly, in locations they haven’t flown before.

As drones and the sensor packages they carry improve in price and performance, many campuses are considering conducting research on unmanned aerial systems and their applications.

In UC Merced’s well-established program, faculty members and students are working on scientific data drones that can patrol wildfire perimeters, collect water samples, monitor pest situations in agricultural fields, check soil and crop conditions, and much more.

“Each different application presents an exciting new challenge of optimizing the combination of vehicle design, weight, range, airspeed and sensor needs,” said Brandon Stark, manager of the Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation Laboratory.

Although MESA Lab students can test fly their drones at very low altitudes outside the lab at Castle, each FAA certificate gives the official OK to fly specific UASs at specific locations.

For one certificate, Stark and professor YangQuan Chen selected a fiberglass plane with a 71/2-foot wingspan that flies for about 45 minutes and can carry 2 pounds of scientific equipment, such as environmental sensors and cameras. They have authorization to launch from a site within a few miles of campus and can fly it up to 700 feet in the air.

“The system is capable of flying much higher if the mission warrants and is allowed,” Chen said. “It’s capable of research in a number of important areas.”

Chen and the students will also test multi-spectrum mosaic imaging this summer now that the FAA has granted another certificate to allow them to fly over the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve adjacent to campus to make the most comprehensive aerial survey of the property yet.

Using the drones’ super high-resolution pictures, researchers can look at plant health, growth and stress. Innovative early detection of crop stresses is being investigated in the MESA Lab.

There are many advantages to the unmanned systems, Chen said, the greatest of which is that they remove the risk to humans, especially in places inherently dangerous and in emergency situations such as fires and earthquakes.

If the MESA Lab team finds people, groups, businesses or agencies that need the data acquisition services it can offer, the lab can apply for additional specific permits.

The FAA names “centers of excellence” for unmanned systems, where the agency, the university and its affiliates, such as national laboratories, work on various projects.

Chen wants to see UC Merced earn that designation in the next few years. “I think we are uniquely positioned and can earn national prominence in this field,” he said.

Leadership roles an advantage for engineering alumnus

In today’s job market, graduating college and landing a full-time position in their field of study is a dream come true for most students.

For UC Merced alumnus Mark Lazzaro it is a reality. Lazzaro graduated in December 2013 and by February he had secured a full-time position as a process engineer at Scholle Packaging in Merced.

"Getting employed as a process engineer is my proudest moment,” he said.

Lazzaro’s success is not a surprise in light of his role in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

During his sophomore year, Lazzaro took a leadership role in the club as treasurer; the next year he was vice president and then president. He remains active as a senior member in the organization.

Lazzaro also served as president of Vanguard, a student organization that oversees all engineering societies. He is involved with a national leadership development program in which he gives annual workshops on how to market proper organization skills.

Lazzaro hopes to create an internship position for UC Merced students at Scholle.