Michelle Ward
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Initiative opportunity for students to develop technology for NASA

Mon, 01/27/2014

LAWRENCE — A new initiative that brings research into the classroom is giving seniors at the University of Kansas a chance to develop technology for NASA. The program, which pairs undergraduates with a graduate student mentor, will expose students to advanced research while giving them opportunities to contribute to the state of the art.   

Robert Knight, a graduate student in electrical engineering, received a $500 grant from KU’s Graduate Research Consultant (GRC) program to supervise a team of students in designing and building hardware for new collision-avoidance radar. Knight is part of the team working on the NASA-funded “Multichannel Sense-and-Avoid Radar for Small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)” project, which alerts autonomous UAVs to buildings and other potential hazards.

Christopher Allen, professor electrical engineering and computer science, serves as principal investigator on the project.

“The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] currently requires a pilot of a UAV to maintain line-of-sight contact with the aircraft, which limits their use in research and commercial endeavors. Our sense-and-avoid system is designed to provide the UAV with situation awareness and to reduce the need for a ground-based pilot, thus giving greater autonomy to UAVs and help the market grow,” Allen said.  “The GRC program will allow undergraduates to gain real-world research experience while completing critical components of our project. It is a win-win for the department.”

Allen teaches the Senior Design Laboratory, and Knight serves as the graduate teaching assistant for the capstone course. The two were looking for ways to integrate EECS research into students’ semester-long final projects when they discovered the GRC program. The pilot KU program provides funding for Knight to help develop a research project and to advise students throughout the semester, allowing undergraduates to delve into more demanding research projects.

“The senior design lab has always been a project-based class; however, most of these projects are disconnected from existing cutting-edge research within the department,” Knight said. “The GRC grant supports one-on-one interaction with students and gives them the opportunity to participate in a large-scale project.”

This spring, seniors Ned Howard, Brittany Limones Kenneth McChesney and Kelly Rodriguez will develop a prototype transmitter and receiver, which must be small enough and light enough to work on newer, smaller UAVs. The transmitter will send out a wireless signal that bounces off nearby objects and is reflected back to the receiver to detect nearby objects and their position, avoiding airborne collisions.

McChesney, who will join Northrop Grumman, a leader in the production of UAVs, after graduation, says the NASA project gives him the opportunity to get a head start on his career. Having had Knight as a GTA, McChesney knows he will be a great resource and adviser for the team. He is looking forward to being part of a large research endeavor.

“This experience is valuable because it simulates how work in engineering is done outside of academia. A company would assemble a team to work together to solve a problem, and ultimately develop a functioning device,” McChesney said. “I am very excited for the opportunity to work on a project that has the potential to innovate UAVs at such a large scale. This is a very impressive project for senior-level undergraduate students to be working on and shows how the EECS department is continually enhancing the program.” 

At the end of the semester, Allen and Knight will assess how the project went and look to find new ways to bring leading-edge EECS research projects into the capstone course. 

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