Virginia Tech researchers help drones move from niche applications to public use

A driver’s license does not represent freedom for young people to the extent that it did for their parents, says Myra Blanco, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

“Teenagers get feelings of freedom by being connected, and if mom and dad can drive them from Point A to Point B, that’s a great convenience because they text with friends or post to Facebook,” Blanco said at the Virginia Smart Road in Blacksburg, Va., during a September 2013 visit from officials from Google Inc. and more than a dozen journalists.

   

Myra Blanco, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, with Google’s driverless car at the Virginia Smart Road. Myra Blanco, a research scientist with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, meets U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith and U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte after they rode in Google’s driverless car at the Virginia Smart Road.

In the distance, a modified Lexus carrying U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, and two Google engineers turned at the far end of the two-mile circuit, braked for another car, and parked.

Nothing unusual, except the Google car was driving itself. "It's one of those futuristic types of things that you knew would happen someday but you didn't realize it was happening now," Griffith said.

The research with Google and General Motors is part of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study about how driverless technology should evolve from a user’s perspective.

It’s just one way Virginia Tech innovators are helping unmanned and autonomous vehicles move out of niche applications and into safe public use. Faculty members across colleges and institutes develop new strategies for research, create new technology for rescue and environmental missions, and change the way people and products get places.

Drones, plants, and cameras

Orville and Wilbur Wright took turns piloting the 1903 Wright Flyer. In 2003, pilot and mechanical engineer Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, re-enacted the flight for its 100th anniversary.

Preflight jitters? None, he said.

“I had mentally made that flight a thousand times,” Kochersberger said.

Ten years later, Kochersberger said he feels those butterflies because of a 200-pound helicopter he engineered to fly autonomously.

Kochersberger’s flight team wasn’t at the familiar Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems Laboratory, which serves as the base for the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems — a research arm for the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and the College of Engineering. The team was alone in the Roanoke Valley, disconnected from power, except for a portable generator.

The team is made up of mechanical engineering students Justin Stiltner of Grundy, Va., the ground station operator; safety pilot Kenneth Kroeger of Hunt Valley, Md., who was ready to “fly” the autonomous helicopter at the first sign of trouble; Donny Rogers of Winchester, Va., who programmed in the navigation and payload information, and Gordon Christie of Morgantown, W.Va, who served as an observer, scanning the area for hazards.

The project with David Reed, an Extension agronomist at the Virginia Tech Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Blackstone, Va., will determine whether unmanned drones can gather data useful for managing crops.

By building sensing systems, called payloads, for the autonomous helicopter, the researchers are perfecting technology that can be used to image for symptoms of crop stress, to deploy on search-and-rescue missions, or to monitor blast areas and conservation sites.

Welcome to the new age

David G. Schmale III was only 10 when his passion for planes took off. His grandfather, a recreational pilot, asked if he wanted to wash an airplane.

“We took some sponges and buckets and went out to the airport and washed the plane,” said Schmale, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Then, I asked my grandfather where the towels were so we could dry the plane. He said, ‘That’s not how we dry the plane. Get in.’ ”

   

David Schmale uses research drones to track the movement of dangerous microorganisms that surf atmospheric waves. David G. Schmale III, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, and colleagues use research drones to track the movement of dangerous microorganisms that surf atmospheric waves.

Schmale has aimed for the sky ever since. Named one of Popular Science’s 2013 Brilliant Ten in the magazine’s October 2013 issue, Schmale explores microbial life in the atmosphere.

He and his colleagues use drones to track the movement of dangerous microorganisms that surf atmospheric waves. These atmospheric waves collect, mix, and shuffle microorganisms across cities, states, and even countries. This research has deepened our understanding of the flow of life in the atmosphere and has contributed unique tools for scientific exploration in the burgeoning field of aeroecology.

His latest research project involves examining a complex world of microbes in rain.

Schmale and Boris Vinatzer, an associate professor and geneticist, are part of an international team running DNA analyses on millions of microbes in raindrops. And some of these drops are being captured in the clouds themselves, using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The sky is not the limit anymore.

  • For more information on this topic, contact John Pastor at 540-231-5646.

Photos: A drone's view on research

    A professor prepares to launch an autonomous helicopter.

Pilot and mechanical engineer Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, engineered a 200-pound helicopter to fly autonomously to determine whether drones can gather data useful for managing crops. See pictures from a test flight.

Multimedia: Drones in action

    Google Car

Watch the driverless Google car in action at the Virginia Smart Road.

    David Schmale

Associate Professor David Schmale talks about his use of drones to study microbial life in the atmosphere.

Researchers consider what's next

The use of drones in research can help lead to new products and services, said Craig Woolsey, an associate professor of aerospace and ocean engineering with the College of Engineering and the director of the Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems.

“Not only will use of the airspace change, but unmanned systems will transform public roads and waterways,” Woolsey said. “Virginia Tech has faculty members across colleges and institutes who are moving autonomous vehicles out of niche applications and into safe public use.”

The changes ahead may have every bit as much impact as the smart phone, which revolutionized communication and productivity but caused unexpected problems, such as privacy and distracted driving issues.

This time, researchers are anticipating the outcomes to capitalize on the good ones and minimize the bad, Woolsey said.

 “When people realize what they will gain through autonomous technology, we are going to see a drastic paradigm shift in the way we approach these activities,” he said. “As happened with cellular devices, new industries will crop up, new infrastructure needs will evolve. The economic impact will be enormous.”

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Associate Professor David Schmale revs up an aircraft to collect moisture samples from the atmosphere.

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