August 22, 2011

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. - As the son of an aircraft mechanic, Nick Urban learned a thing or two about planes.

The rising senior at Bucknell University started out putting together model airplanes when he was a child but later became more interested in the technology that makes them work.

This summer, Urban, a computer science major from New Jersey, has combined the two interests in a research project in which he is designing, building and flying a remote-controlled aerial drone. The so-called "Flying Bison," outfitted with video and still cameras and GIS technology, is being used to capture high-resolution images of Miller Run Creek for an ongoing restoration of the waterway that runs through Lewisburg. The data also will be used to assess how well unmanned aerial vehicles monitor environmental change.

"Pretty much all the equipment you would find on a regular plane is squeezed onto this remote-control plane," Urban said during a recent test flight at the Bucknell University Golf Course. "It has a manual takeoff and landing, but I flip a switch on the transmitter and it will fly itself and navigate on its own."

Urban received a stipend from the Bucknell Environmental Center and the University's Library and Information Technology division to work with GIS specialist Janine Glathar and several professors to design and adapt a computer flight program. With the team's support, Urban programmed the drone to hit map coordinates along Miller Run, from its start at Abbey Lane to where it meets the Susquehanna River. Another group of students collected high-resolution elevation data.

Miller Run Restoration
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has awarded Bucknell a $178,000 Growing Greener grant to restore Miller Run to a more natural state and to relieve local flooding, said Cathy Myers, executive director of the Bucknell Environmental Center. As part of the project, geography professor Duane Griffin; geology professors Craig Kochel and Rob Jacob; and Ben Hayes, director of the Susquehanna River Initiative of the Environmental Center, will use Urban's in-flight data for a restoration plan. Work will begin next spring to redesign the stream banks and create wetlands to encourage water to be absorbed into the ground rather than the river, which eventually meets the Chesapeake Bay.

"Miller Run is a typical, flashy suburban stormwater-damaged stream, the unintended consequence of 20th-century-style stormwater management," Myers said, explaining that it was customary to channel rainwater from roofs and pavement into streams and rivers.

"Unfortunately, when we gather raindrops together and give them a straight path through pipes and armored stream banks, we create powerful volumes and velocity of water that rips up beds and banks of streams as well as people's backyards," Myers said. "Such streams contribute to localized flash flooding in areas of Lewisburg. The soil pollutes our rivers and contributes to the dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. We do not expect to truly restore Miller Run to its natural condition, but we can bring some of the natural structure and function back and better integrate it into the watershed."

'Flying Bison'
During the test flight, Urban attached a Canon Powershot to the bottom of the Flying Bison and put it in continuous shooting mode.

"The Powershot will take pictures from a bird's eye view for mapping purposes," he said.

He also had a video camera on the front of the plane hooked up to a transmitter on the tail to provide a live video feed of the flight.

"I planned out the flight on my computer first," Urban said. "Then, I loaded it into the autopilot. I programmed various X and Y coordinates of where the plane is supposed to fly. The plane tries to get to each way point within a radius of error. As long as it is within 30 meters, it will count the way point flown and move on to the next."

The data from the flyovers will be used to determine where to plant wetlands, shrubs and plantings, Glathar said.

"I am working with him to make sure we have the data we need for the faculty to do the restoration work," she said. "Nick built the plane and developed the technology behind it."

Contest inspired project
Urban was inspired to build the plane after entering an Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) contest in Maryland. He and fellow rising senior Dan Farrell, a physics major, came in 15th out of 26 teams and won $1,000 for the Flying Bison despite being the smallest team in the history of the competition. A casual discussion led to his involvement in the Miller Run project, Glathar said.

Urban drew on his childhood skills to build the plane. He used a special type of malleable foam commonly used by hobbyists, for instance.

"If you crash it, it will bounce instead of break," he explained.

Other materials included a computer chip and modems to receive and transmit commands; pitot tubes to measure pressure and calculate air speed; custom carbon fiber landing gear; and some household items such as rubber bands and Velcro to attach point-and-shoot and video cameras. Urban tested the plane several times near the Mods residential units off Smoketown Road before the official trial at the new Tee Box at the Bucknell Golf Course in late July.

"It has a huge range," he said. "Sometimes, I can't see it anymore and I have to use just the instruments to fly it."

Contact: Division of Communications