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Engineers for Exploration: Pushing the Boundaries of World-Wide Field Research

The Engineers for Exploration project is a collaboration between the National Geographic and the Calit2 research center at UC San Diego. [Length: 4:30]

San Diego, CA, June 28, 2012 --“It’s the funniest sight, seeing a massive blimp driving down the street attached to a pickup truck. It looks like the truck will literally lift of the ground because the balloon is so huge.” 

This particular balloon, as described by Albert Yu-Min Lin of the UC San Diego and National Geographic Society’s Engineers for Exploration program, is no party decoration. It carries a camera on a self-stabilizing aerial platform, and is capable of taking high-resolution composite photographs that span a mile or more. The Balloon Camera, along with the OctoCopter, the Terrestrial Vehicle, and the Camera Trap, were conceived, designed and built by UC San Diego undergraduates participating in Engineers for Exploration.

Forging a one-of-a-kind partnership between UC San Diego and the National Geographic Society, Engineers for Exploration provides students with the opportunity to drive the boundaries of world-wide exploratory field research. From capturing footage of primates in Cameroon to studying the San Diego watershed from the sky, students can join in every step of the way.

“The program was designed out of an effort to merge UCSD engineering skill and talent with unconventional applications in exploration,” says Lin. “We’ve had an incredibly successful experience so far.”  

Lin is a research scientist at the Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture, and Archaeology (CISA3), a partnership of the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), the University’s Jacobs School of Engineering, and its Division of Arts and Humanities. He is also an Emerging Explorer at the National Geographic Society.  For the past two years he has been creating and co-directing Engineers for Exploration with Ryan Kastner, associate professor of Computer Science and Engineering.

While Lin, Kastner, and fellow Research Scientist Curt Schurgers direct the program, the bulk of the work is done by undergraduates.  “Every aspect of the program is managed by the students.” notes Lin, “Even the program website, the filmmaking. They even submit their own budgets.” 

“If we have an idea we run with it,” explains third-year mechanical engineering student Radley Angelo, the leader of the Octocopter project. “Any vision we have, we can do anything. Albert [Lin] and Ryan [Kastner] are really hands-off.”

Angelo and his team are designing the Octocopter, an eight-bladed helicopter fitted for aerial photography. Like the other vehicles developed by the students, the Octocopter must be versatile enough to be easily transported, powered and operated from remote locations. 

“It’s not theoretical -- we get to build things that go out in the field,” says Angelo. “I took the copter to Middle-Of-Nowhere, Mongolia. We were there for three weeks, and everything broke.” “It was still flying at the end, though, mangled as it was,” Angelo noted. 

Members of the Explorers for Engineering Octocopter team deploy the device at the base of UC San Diego's Geisel Library. [Length: 0:44]

The students video-conference every other week with engineers at National Geographic’s Washington, D.C. office. They discuss designs and set up deadlines, which the students work round-the-clock to meet. “I don’t think there’s ever been a deadline that we’ve missed. We pull all-nighters. These are our babies,” Angelo explains. 

Chris Ward, a third-year electrical engineering student at UC San Diego, leads the Intelligent Camera Trap project. Ward remembers how his initial work on the Trap pushed him beyond his comfort zone. 

“It required a lot of fabrication,” he says. “I was out of my realm. I had to spend a lot of time in my garage building things. It was an interesting experience.” 

Like the other students, Riley Yeakle, a second-year electrical engineering undergraduate working with Ward, loves the challenge of starting from scratch.  “The whole program is about making prototypes, and then making them work,” he said. “I’m interested in front-end development, where you come up with an idea and make it.”

Their Camera Trap, a smart, low-power autonomous photography system, will ultimately be able to identify and capture high-quality images and behavioral videos of animals in their natural habitats. 

The team recently competed in the Cornell Cup USA, a world-wide collegiate embedded design competition put on by Intel Corporation to encourage the next generation of embedded-technology inventors. Although the Trap fell short of being one of the top three finalists among 22 teams, Ward and Yeakle were awarded Honorable Mention for their innovation.  

The Camera Trap team has met with many real engineering challenges along the way. “When I first started, we were using direct gears to move the camera,” remembers Ward. “It was really loud. It sounded like somebody was strangling a goose. This wouldn’t work in the wild because it would scare off the animals,” he says. The team has since decided on a belt-driven camera to quiet the system.

One day, the Camera Trap could be used to observe marine mammals and waterbirds in Antarctica. “Climate change is impacting the behavior of these species as they learn to adapt, and we’d like to use our equipment to monitor them,” Ward says. 

James Strawson, fourth year mechanical engineer at UCSD, leads the Engineers’ Terrestrial Vehicle project. Strawson and his team are busy building the remote-controlled vehicle for unmanned ground photography. 

Watch the Explorers for Engineering Intelligent Camera Trap system in action. [Length: 1:41]

Strawson and his team must jump their own engineering hurdles, such as the challenge of stabilizing the car. They initially attempted active suspension to remove both high- and low-frequency vibrations from the camera, but that was too energy-demanding. They were therefore forced to switch to a less-taxing isolated vibration-damper. 

“The power requirement is a main issue,” says Strawson. “You have to have a power system with high response, low inertia, and a high-force actuator. Because of the small scale, it’s hard to come by all of these.” 

Each team also works to ensure that their device is easy to operate even by novices. “User-friendliness is something we’re striving for,” stresses Strawson. “These are actual products to be used, not just cool little vehicles for around the lab.” 

Thomas Goehring, the mechanical engineering senior in charge of the Balloon Camera project, just returned from a meeting with National Geographic engineers. At the meeting, Goehrig presented his team’s progress, and showed the giga-pan images taken along the La Jolla coastline. 

National Geographic was impressed. “They said: ‘We were just expecting a group of undergraduates.’” recalls Goehring. “We went above and beyond their expectations.”

Goehring, like others in the Engineers program, described “stumbling” into it rather spontaneously. “Last year I wanted something different,” said Goehring. “I was living with a group of guys and one of them said, ‘Hey we need a mechanical engineer on our project.’ It was a shock at first because I didn’t know any practical engineering, but they said: ‘You know what? You’ll learn. You’re on the team.’”

One downside to developing an engineering team in a spontaneous, organic way is that it can be hard to find dedicated and reliable team-members. “It didn’t help when people join project and three weeks later they’ve done nothing,” says Goehring.

Yet Goehring emphasizes the dedication of the team members that do stick around. “A lot of people get filtered out, but the people we do have are amazing, they have been really great and reliable,” he says. 

“If anyone is really excited -- even if you don’t know anything -- just put in the time and I’ll teach you,” adds Goehring, who is looking for team leaders to take over his responsibilities when he graduates. “Sometimes you just have to bang your head against a computer, but it teaches you about concentration and thinking independently. You have to figure it out because there is no place to go to look up the answer.”

Interested UC San Diego students can find out more about participating in Engineers for Exploration on the program website, and are invited to attend open weekly lab meetings (see site for schedule.) 

By Claire Discenza 

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