UAB students’ research work takes flight with drone technology

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Drones are quickly becoming a prolific part of modern society, and students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are doing cutting-edge research involving the flying machines.

Elizabeth Bevan, a doctoral student in the Department of Biology, is using drones in her thesis project that studies the effects of climate change on the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico.

Her focus is understanding the courtship and mating behaviors of the turtles, and drones have given her an up-close view into their previously unknown habitat. They do so without interfering with the animals.

In 2013, Bevan and her mentor, biology professor Dr. Thane Wibbels, started using a basic drone with a GoPro camera attached. They sent it out over the water to film hatchings they had been monitoring on the beach, and they were floored by the potential.

They followed up with a more sophisticated drone and camera.

“The next season we were awestruck,” she said. “The newer model had a communication system between the aircraft and the remote control, and we could see in real time what the camera saw. It was the first time we’ve ever seen this kind of glimpse into this habitat.”

Revolutionary technology

Elizabeth Bevan pilots the UAB team’s DJI Inspire drone. (UAB)

Bevan and Wibbels have documented eight types of courtship and mating behavior among the turtles in the Gulf. They’re now exploring with new cameras, including a thermal imager that lets them track turtles in the ocean and on their nesting beaches through body heat.

Bevan said drone technology is revolutionizing the way researchers conduct biological studies of sea turtles and wildlife in general.

“Without drones, we wouldn’t have been able to get this kind of information,” she said. “It’s not just opening a new door; it’s like blowing open a whole new wall.”

Bevan has received a fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institute Program. This summer, she will spend three months in Australia, where researchers are doing advanced work involving drone technology and wildlife habitat exploration.

Limitless potential

Meanwhile, Ali Darwish, a UAB doctoral student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, has been building drones since 2009 and says they have unlimited applications.

He is developing a software that will allow drones to track other drones. He was also part of a team that developed a small, waterproof quadcopter drone for dam inspections; another project is looking at potential applications for agriculture.

UAB professor Dr. Arie Nakhmani and graduate student Ali Darwish hold a quadcopter drone in the School of Engineering laboratory. (UAB)

“By placing infrared sensors and thermal sensors on drones, we can enable farmers to see plants, see diseases and see whether plants are irrigated,” he said.

Darwish, who grew up in Dubai, has always had a fascination with flying machines. A native of Syria, he and students from other schools were involved in a project that sought to deliver humanitarian aid by drones to his war-torn home country.

Their work was stymied by the political climate, but that hasn’t stopped Darwish’s interest in drones.

He will soon start a job in Washington, D.C., with a company that specializes in artificial intelligence. He continues to work on his dissertation, and his work with drones – flying them, testing them, developing new uses and abilities for them – will continue.

Not too long ago, drone technology was a military secret, Darwish said. But now, it’s showing up in all types of commercial applications.

“People shouldn’t be afraid of drones. They’re coming anyway, because the technology is evolving, so let’s get used to living with them,” he said.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

Republished with permission of Alabama NewsCenter.

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