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UNL researchers developing water-collecting copter


It’s not easy being a water scientist.

Many of Amy Burgin’s days are spent getting in a boat and paddling to the spot on a lake or along a stream where she wants to get a water sample for testing. At times, she must gather water samples in difficult weather conditions — blistering heat, drenching rain — or in remote places.

An unmanned aerial vehicle being developed by a pair of University of Nebraska-Lincoln professors could ease Burgin’s workload by collecting water samples in places where Burgin or her graduate assistants would prefer not to go.

“I could just send something out to sample rather than send somebody,” said Burgin, an assistant professor of aquatic ecology at UNL. “That could really change the kind of data we can collect.”

Carrick Detweiler and Sebastian Elbaum, UNL professors of computer science and engineering, are designing unmanned aerial vehicles that use a tube to pull water from a lake or stream into a tiny reservoir. The two UNL professors co-direct the Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems, or NIMBUS, Lab at UNL. The lab works to develop unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The two professors are now leading a team of researchers from UNL and the University of California, Berkeley. Their three-year water drone project recently was awarded a $956,210 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the National Robotics Initiative, a collaboration between the National Science Foundation and other agencies.

Detweiler said they’ve focused their efforts mostly on a six-rotor helicopter that can collect three 20-milliliter samples in a single trip. The miniature helicopter can only remain airborne for about 20 minutes, however, he said.

In the next year, they will use the USDA grant to develop key algorithms to improve the safety and reliability of the water sampler.

The research effort will focus on developing UAV systems that offer the right level of autonomy and reliability without compromising safety. Ultimately, the researchers hope to make the UAVs autonomous, with scientists programming in global positioning data and letting the drone go collect samples.

Eventually, they hope to design drones that will be able to keep good water samples and dump bad ones using onboard analysis.

For now, Detweiler and Elbaum are testing their prototype in an indoor laboratory at UNL, but they hope to gain a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to test the UAV outdoors.

Recently, another UNL researcher learned about the FAA regulation that requires public entities seeking to fly UAVs outdoors to first gain a waiver.

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