At the Y

Unleash the Drones


At midnight in the Wilkinson Student Center, the drones come out.

Illustrations of drones
Illustration by grmarc/iStock

The copters, each with a 4-foot wingspan, buzz around on autonomous, looping expeditions of the hallways on the floor above the Cougareat.

The janitors are notified, assures David O. Wheeler (BS ’13), an electrical and computer engineering PhD student. “They ask if they can watch.”

“We’re teaching a computer to have human intuition,” he says—giving drones the smarts to fly without GPS. It is the crux of his dissertation—and one of the major hurdles to the future he and his professors imagine: a future in which unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) could be used for delivering mail, inspecting pipelines, monitoring wildlife, and more.

“Selfie sticks,” laughs electrical and computer engineering professor Randal W. Beard (’89), “might be quad-rotors following you around.”

And then there’s the lofty long-term goal: personal, pilotless flight—“a kind of Jetsons vision of the future,” says mechanical engineering professor Timothy W. McLain (BS ’86, MS ’87).

Beard and McLain shifted their focus to unmanned aircraft long before drones made news every day. “We caught the wave at the right time,” says McLain. Since 2001, when they made BYU the first university to unveil a flying autopilot, BYU has been among the frontrunners in UAV research.

“Absolutely, BYU has made a reputation for itself in this area,” says Derek Kingston, cooperative UAV tech lead at the Air Force Research Laboratories, a BYU sponsor.

Among BYU’s latest feats: they’ve licensed a system that enables a ground operator to send a UAV after something merely by clicking on an object of interest in that UAV’s video feed. They’ve taught a drone to land autonomously on a moving truck. And they’ve used UAVs in search-and-rescue missions and to monitor natural disasters, from landslides to earthquakes, in places like Utah and Chile.

Another coup: BYU launched the new Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems—the only National Science Foundation–funded center for such research in the country. The center unites four universities (BYU, the University of Colorado, Virginia Tech, and Georgia Tech) and has signed 14 industry sponsors. The sponsor they are presently courting, Facebook, wants to bring the Internet to the developing world via high-flying Wi-Fi hotspots—and signals a shift in the skies.

The field, built and long dominated by the military and aerospace companies, is seeing new faces. “Facebook, Google, Amazon. . . . There’s a ton of energy beyond all the usual players,” says McLain. “They’re welcome, you know,” he adds. These companies and many others are pushing for changes to Federal Aviation Administration laws, which stand in the way of most potential drone applications.
“Regulatory obstacles are the biggest obstacles we have,” says Beard. There are technical obstacles, to be sure, to make Amazon’s vision of drone-to-door package delivery possible—but the technical obstacles make Beard smile.

He’s working now on what he calls the “problem of the last 50 feet: getting past the trees, onto the porch, on the mat, avoiding the dog.” BYU students attack these “sense and avoid” and “autonomous landing” challenges with computers, laser sensors, cameras, and principles of physics.

They don’t recruit students; with projects like a giant capture-the-flag game funded by the Office of Naval Research, students find them. Half the students were on offense, using UAVs to snap pictures of a classified object; the other half used UAVs to stop them.

“We have a lot of fun,” says Beard. And with movement in regulations anticipated next year, says McLain, the sky will no longer be the limit.

“In the next 10 years we’re going to see a drastic change in how unmanned systems are going to be used,” says Jenny Rogers, an engineer at BYU-sponsor Northrop Grumman, adding that the outlook couldn’t be better for the drone specialists BYU is training up.

Wheeler is stoked: he has dreamed of autonomous lawn mowers since pushing one as a kid. About 20–40 years from now, he says, “I don’t think we’ll go an hour without autonomous robots like drones affecting the way we interact with society. I’m excited to be around that transition.”