The Future of Drone Technology

Aware Vehicles, UMKC partner to develop Unmanned Aerial Vehicle automation

Imagine an autonomous drone taking off from a smart docking station on top of a moving vehicle, navigated only by GPS and cameras, collecting and transmitting data and landing right back same place it took off from. Pretty cool, right? Impossible? Not anymore.

University of Missouri-Kansas City Associate Professor of Civil and Mechanical Engineering ZhiQiang Chen, PhD, in partnership with Aware Vehicles President and CEO PJ Piper, recently received funding from the National Science Foundation — $225,000 – and the U.S. Department of Transportation — $150,000 – to develop unmanned aerial vehicle automation, sensing and artificial intelligence technologies that will be prototyped into systems for precision agriculture and civil infrastructure sectors.

How Does It Work?

Aware Vehicles is working to create systems that make drones more autonomous and less reliant on human input. Chen said that while getting the drone to take off is easily done with the flip of a switch, the hardest part of this project is getting it to self-pilot and land back on the docking station. However, an autonomous drone is just half of a product because, Piper said, it still has to do something.

With the help of Chen’s hyperspectral imaging expertise, the drone will be able use advanced imaging equipment to collect data in real time and translate information back to the computing devices in the ground vehicles.

Hyperspectral imaging collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum with the goal of obtaining the spectrum for each pixel in the image of a scene. The purpose for this type of imaging is to find objects, identify materials or detect processes.

“We’ve been looking at the interests of various government agencies to see what they’re looking for and how our technology can help solve those particular issues.”

PJ Piper, President and CEO of Aware Vehicles

The team was fortunate to receive two awards within a year – National Science Foundation and a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Department of Transportation – to help develop and test their systems in real life applications in precision agriculture and civil infrastructure.

This type of equipment also has the potential to work in fields such as homeland security and military defense, construction, parcel delivery – imagine an Amazon-type delivery system – and disaster response.

Real life application: Precision agriculture

The concept for precision agriculture is to get better information from advanced imaging.

The team is currently working with large agriculture original equipment manufacturers to integrate drone and tractor technology systems for real time situational awareness to solve farmers’ pain points.

“Challenges that didn’t have solutions, we are finding elegant solutions to and trying to keep it as minimalistic as possible.”

– Piper

The autonomous drones with hyperspectral imaging will be able to analyze groups of plants in specific locations and identify, based on wavelengths of light, which plants need more or less water, fertilizer or pesticide chemicals.

“Scientists do this all the time in labs. It’s called phenotyping, but they can’t do it in the field. How would they be able to translate such a large amount of data?”

– ZhiQiang Chen, PhD, associate professor of civil and mechanical engineering

Problem solved. The information collected from the drone’s imaging system will be translated back to its mobile smart docking station, which crunches the data and tells the tractor what to do. Based on its GPS location, the tractor can determine which treatments to deliver to specific field areas all autonomously.

“Its real time situational awareness,” Chen said.

They’re also working to apply this to civil infrastructure – bridges and highways.

Bridge Inspection

There are only a handful of people who are able to assess when bridges should be replaced, you can’t take them everywhere, and cities can’t shut down highways to have them inspected. The team is working with the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop the capability for someone to pull up and park their vehicle and allow an autonomous vehicle to fly over, collect data and translate it back to the department in real time without their experts having to drive across the state to do that.

Chen said there a lot of people who talk about using drones for bridge inspection, but there’s always the hassle of having to get out of your vehicle and fly the drone around for a few minutes before having to go back and charge it. With the Aware Vehicles smart docking station, the drone will be pre-programmed to know where the bridge is and where to look so the department doesn’t need an experienced operator to be there.

The team is using the funding from their grant awards to complete development and will begin demonstrations within the next six months to a year.

Article by: Kelsey Haynes, Strategic Marketing and Communications

UMKC Wins $5.4 Million to Research Bone and Muscle Loss

NIH awards grant to Schools of Dentistry, Computing and Engineering and Medicine

The University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry received a $5.4 million grant award as part of a $10.4 million award to the Indiana University School of Medicine from the National Institute of Aging to continue research into the effects of aging on bone and muscle loss. UMKC researchers have led the way in recognizing and studying how the two conditions — osteoporosis and sarcopenia — often occur together and may interact.

“UMKC is excited to continue this important research that can help solve health problems that affect our families and so many of us as we age,” said UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal.

Bone and muscle loss both are widespread and costly. An estimated 25 million Americans have or are at risk for osteoporosis and resulting fractures, and a similar number of older Americans suffer sarcopenia or diminished muscle mass and function. Together, they are estimated to account for more than $40 billion in annual health care costs. Osteoporosis and sarcopenia often occur together. UMKC research has been at the forefront in recognizing how muscle and bones interact with each other and how one tissue affects the function of the other as well as studying how exercise and other factors can help prevent muscle and bone loss as people age.

The grant will finance five years of work by UMKC research teams led by Mark Johnson, Ph.D., and Sarah Dallas, Ph.D., who are studying the molecular mechanisms by which aging bone and muscle cells communicate with one another, and how exercise and other measures could help reverse or prevent the effects of aging on bone and muscle. Their research teams are supported by co-leaders LeAnn Tiede-Lewis of the School of Dentistry; Ganesh Thiagarajan, Ph.D., P.E., of the School of Computing and Engineering; and Michael Wacker, Ph.D., of the School of Medicine.

The research includes two more teams, led by former UMKC faculty members who are project leaders within the overall program project grant and this collaborative research effort. One of those teams is at the University of Indiana, led by Lynda Bonewald, Ph.D., who is the overall principal investigator of the research. The other is at the University of Texas-Arlington, led by Marco Brotto, Ph.D.

Johnson is the chair of the Department of Oral and Craniofacial Sciences and director of the UMKC Center of Excellence in the Study of Dental and Musculoskeletal Tissues. He is internationally known for his discoveries and work on the regulation of bone mass. Dallas, is the UMKC School of Dentistry’s Lee M. and William Lefkowitz Endowed Professor. She is internationally known for her fundamental research into the role of osteocytes, the cells that regulate bone mass; the dynamic interactions of bone cells; and the effects of bone-muscle “crosstalk” on the skeleton.

“This is a significant accomplishment which brings new excitement for our research program,” said Marsha Pyle, Dean of the UMKC School of Dentistry. “We are grateful for the collaboration in advancing science that will occur because of it.”

| Article by Greg Hack and Stacy Downs, Strategic Marketing and Communications

STEM Education for the 21st Century

School of Computing and Engineering breaks ground on new $32 million research center

Students flew drones above and demonstrated robotics around steel bridges and racing buggies outside of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Student Union Theater. These prize-winning innovations gave guests just a glimpse of the talent that comes out of the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering as they filed into the theater to celebrate the long-awaited groundbreaking Sept. 20 of the school’s new research and laboratory building.

The name of the new $32 million building was revealed at the event: The Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise and Research Center.

The 57,800-square-foot building will provide leading-edge, high-tech research and development capabilities for both the campus and the Kansas City community at large. As home to the campus’ Free Enterprise Center, a maker space with industry grade equipment available for anyone to use, this building will serve a much broader audience than just the UMKC community when it opens in 2020.

“The efforts of our faculty and staff – under the leadership of Dean Kevin Truman – have led to a rapid increase in student enrollment over the past 10 years at the School of Computing and Engineering. The new education and research center will increase both classroom space and faculty research capabilities for the school, both of which play a key role in maintaining and enhancing Kansas City and Missouri’s ability to compete in a high-tech 21st century global economy.”
-UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal

Switching up from the traditional dirt-and-shovel groundbreaking events, and directly in line with UMKC’s leadership in drone technology, Agrawal and School of Computing and Engineering Dean Kevin Z. Truman led the audience through a virtual groundbreaking experience and multimedia visual of the building.

“This building gives us the ability to perform world-class research in fields such as nanomaterials, unpiloted aircraft, renewable energy and Big Data. Our students will be thrilled to continue their in-depth participation in scholarly research, now taking place in a new, modern, enhanced facility.”
-Kevin Z. Truman, dean of the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering

High-tech capabilities in the Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise and Research Center will include:

  • $3 million worth of new virtual reality and augmented reality equipment
  • A clean room and scanning electron microscope, which can allow for the development of nanotechnology, robotics, biomedical applications, mechatronics and other technologies
  • Research-grade 3-D printing equipment
  • A high-bay structural lab that will power research and development for, and prepare the workforce for, Kansas City’s large and growing civil engineering and construction sector
  • “Big data” analytics labs that will replicate major data centers, preparing students for jobs at local tech firms such as Cerner and Garmin as well as major national and international employers such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook
  • An energy learning and research facility that will address topics ranging from renewable energy and traditional high-voltage transmission to the creation of batteries small enough to power tiny monitors being used in medical research and healthcare.

Though only a freshman, Ruby Rios’ relationship with the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering extends back to her middle school days when she first became involved with the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering-founded KC STEM Alliance. Rios said it was her involvement with KC STEM Alliance that sparked her interest in connecting more with the Kansas City tech community. Attending UMKC was a natural fit for her as she’d already spent time on campus, and Flarsheim Hall – the current home of the School of Computing and Engineering – through various summer programs and tech camps for girls.

“Today, I feel very fortunate that I’m able to return to Flarsheim Hall as a Computer Science freshman. I think the new building represents how seriously UMKC is taking its role as a leader in STEM education in our region. I’m excited to see that the School of Computing and Engineering is growing right alongside the rest of our tech community.”
-Ruby Rios, freshman at the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering

Though many of the attendees there to celebrate the groundbreaking each came with a unique perspective, the shared excitement among them was that the future of STEM research and education is as bright as ever.

“As one of the first corporate supporters of this project, I couldn’t be prouder. And as one of the first personal supporters of this project, I’m even happier. What you will do here will move your students forward, it will move Kansas City forward.”
-Greg Graves, retired CEO of Burns & McDonnell

Construction of the Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise and Research Center will begin immediately. The technical consultant team on the project is PGAV Architects, Odimo, Branch Pattern, KH Engineering Group and SK Design. The design-build team is Whiting-Turner Contracting Company, HOK, Ross & Baruzzini, Antella Engineering Consultants, Alper Audi Inc., Taliaferro and Browne Inc. and Colin Gordon Associates.

The UMKC School of Computing and Engineering recognized major donors to the building project:

The Sunderland Foundation
The Robert W. Plaster Foundation
The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
The Hall Family Foundation
The Illig Family Foundation
SS&C – formerly DST Systems
The Economic Development Administration
The Jack and Glenna Wiley Foundation
The National Science Foundation
Black & Veatch
Burns & McDonnell
Paul DeBruce

The building is named for Robert W. Plaster of the Robert W. Plaster Foundation. Plaster was a successful Missouri businessman as well as a co-founder and active supporter of Enactus, at that time known as Students in Free Enterprise, and was a member of its executive board until the time of his death in 2008.

| Article by Kelsey Haynes, Strategic Marketing and Communications