Designing remote-controlled airplanes is part of what a team of students and staff at Weber State University has been gaining attention for.
For the past three years, the planes, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have been used to observe a particular breed of bird in Utah called the white-faced ibis, which nests at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. According to Bradley Stringer, the executive director of the Utah Center for Aeronautical Innovation and Design at WSU, professional ornithologists have taken notice, particularly due to the novel combination of components on board the UAVs.
The aircrafts are outfitted with affordable cameras, autopilots, engines and computer systems.
“It’s so novel,” Stringer said. “It allows them photographic and other scientific instruments that can be taken to the birds, where heretofore in the past couldn’t be accomplished, or if you did, you totally disrupted the birds and messed up the subject that you were trying to observe, which is a scientific no-no.”
According to Amanda Gentry, a WSU geology senior working on the photographic components of the aircraft, the collaboration between the UAVs and the ibis research began when Stringer approached WSU zoology professor John Cavitt.
“Dr. John Cavitt at Weber State University is one of those prominent ornithologists that has done a lot of work on those birds,” Stringer said.
Shayne Chambers, a pre-engineering senior at WSU who built the UAV that will be used this year, said one of the main goals is to provide an affordable system for wildlife researchers.
“There’s large aerospace companies that do similar things, not really as much as with wildlife studies, but as far as security and things . . . they have UAVs that are hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Chambers said. “It’s pretty affordable to people who want to do wildlife studies.”
The UAVs have been continually upgraded over the years in order to provide a more accurate bird count. With a five foot length and a seven foot wingspan, the latest UAV is 10 times larger than last year’s UAV and the engine has been replaced with one that is gas-powered. Chambers said this type of engine is superior to one that is electric-powered.
“With gas power, you get a little longer flights,” Chambers said. “With the electric power, you have to carry a lot more batteries to stay up in the air, and with more batteries, you’re increasing your weight as well. With more weight, your flight time goes down.”
Chambers said the engine is able to carry 20 ounces of fuel, “powering around two and a half hours of conservative flight.”
Gentry said they have upgraded from a high-definition GoPro with video input to a Canon Powershot with 10 times optical zoom, which takes photographic images.
“It makes the image clearer,” Gentry said. “You can determine vegetation, so if there’s vegetation . . . and you make a false color composite, you can tell if there’s animals instead of plants.”
The images are also tagged with location, time and height using an onboard global positioning system. The images can then either be transmitted to the ground station in real time or removed from the flash drive upon recovery of the aircraft.
Currently, the UAV houses an onboard computer system that was programmed by Utah State University. According to Gentry, the system along with the camera allows the photographs to be corrected geometrically.
Chambers and Gentry have been accepted to present their research at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research, which will be held at WSU this year.
Chambers said he has found the project interesting.
“I think when I go into my career, I might be a little bit more open to things like this,” Chambers said. “Hopefully you can, as an engineer, develop things that will help wildlife or help us down the future — you know, clean energy, things like that.”