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

Alumni Board Call for Nominations

Nominations are open for the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering Alumni Association Board, which supports the school and its students. Board members are expected to participate in monthly meetings (a call-in option is available), participate in the SCE Alumni Association’s fundraising events, be contributing members to the Alumni Fund, promote SCE in the community and attend UMKC and SCE Alumni Association events when able.

If you or a graduate you know would be interested in serving on the board, please send the nominee’s name, contact information and a bio or resume to Kaity Woody, by October 31, 2018.

An Investment Worth Making

Donor-Scholar Luncheon Highlights Impact of Scholarships for Engineering Students

Just one week after the groundbreaking of the Robert W. Plaster Free Enterprise and Research Center, the UMKC School of Computing and Engineering had one more thing to celebrate on Friday, Sept. 28. Scholarship opportunities and student success. Donors from top Kansas City technology and engineering firms and UMKC faculty, staff and students, gathered in Pierson Auditorium to shed light on the impact scholarships have on students’ education experiences.

“Today tells an important story. It is a story of education, partnership and progress. The enrollment in our School of Computing and Engineering has more than doubled in the past decade, and that momentum has shown no sign of slowing down.”

– Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal

Another notable story that rings true for scholarship recipient Mary Okafor is that completing college would not have been possible without the help of scholarships.

Okafor, a Nigeria native and senior mechanical engineering student with minors in mathematics and chemistry, had just completed her freshman year when her country’s exchange rates changed and her family could no longer afford to pay for her education.

Okafor took on two on-campus jobs and applied for several scholarships, including the School of Computing and Engineering scholarships. Okafor is a current recipient of the Doris Markham Swinney Scholarship, funded by long-time SCE staff member Debby Dilks in memory of her mother and to show her support of future female engineers.

“Because of the scholarships I have received, I get to have more focus in school and still be involved knowing that there are people donating their generosity to make sure students like me have an education.”

– Mary Okafor, president of the National Society of Black Engineers at UMKC, student ambassador for the School of Computing and Engineering

Donors Help Close the Gap:

  • 78 percent of undergraduate SCE students remain in Kansas City to live and work
  • The School of Computing and Engineering’s female enrollment is four percent higher than the national average of women in STEM
  • The School of Computing and Engineering’s has a three percent higher representation than national average of underrepresented minorities in STEM
  • Enrollment for first-time engineering freshmen is at an all-time high

“When it comes to recruitment and retention, it’s not enough to have wonderful advisors, dedicated community outreach and brilliant faculty. For many young people, it comes down to one thing: ‘is there enough money in my bank account to enroll in class for the coming semester?’”

– Kevin Truman, School of Computing and Engineering dean

When student Molly Gilstrap was growing up, she had a lot of family responsibilities that made getting a job and saving for school rather difficult. Though her parents have always supported her dreams, they can’t help her pay for college. She knew that would be solely her responsibility, thus she spent many late nights in high school applying for every scholarship she could find. Today Gilstrap is a recipient of the Dean’s High Achievement Award, a four-year scholarship awarded to high achieving students in civil engineering, computer science or information technology.

“I want to change the field of computer science to make it welcoming and inclusive to everyone. I want to encourage kids at a young age and build their confidence so they know they can succeed in fields like computer science and engineering, and I want them to know that no matter their parents’ income, there are people out there that will support you.”

– Molly Gilstrap, junior computer science major, Honors Diversity and Inclusion board member, student ambassador for School of Computing and Engineering

More than 90 percent of UMKC freshmen and 85 percent of transfer students receive some combination of scholarships, grants, loans and work-study jobs. The School of Computing and Engineering alone offers more than $150,000 in departmental scholarships. To learn more about scholarship opportunities, visit the UMKC Financial Aid and Scholarships page online.

Story by: Kelsey Haynes, 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