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Taking Flight

UNLV research, a new FAA designation, and state economic development efforts offer clear skies for Nevada’s growing drone industry.
Research  |  Jun 19, 2014  |  By Brian Sodoma
UNLV student and Skyworks founder Greg Friesmuth flies his prototype drone in the Science and Engineering Building. (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services)

All Greg Friesmuth wanted for Christmas as a sixth-grader was a Lego Mindstorms kit. The kits for building programmable robots were new and pricey at the time, so he was thrilled he when he unwrapped three packages of them. He tinkered with those robots, building and rebuilding them throughout high school in Riverside, Calif. When he followed his sister to UNLV for college, he already knew he wanted a career in robotics. Here his ideas quite literally took flight.

Under the watch of professor Woosoon Yim, Friesmuth dove head first into the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also sometimes referred to as "drones." As head of UNLV's Intelligent Structures and Control Laboratory, Yim had just landed a federal research grant in partnership with Sandia National Laboratories to develop an autonomous system for doing the hazardous job of measuring radiation levels inside a domed nuclear power plant. Friesmuth stepped up to design and build a drone to carry sensory equipment.

"It was an up and coming thing," Friesmuth said about the research work. "I knew (flying UAVs) was going to be popular, and I kind of latched onto them as my specialty."

His timing couldn't have been more perfect. The prototype developed with the help of Yim has spawned Skyworks Aerial Systems, a UNLV student-based startup that is winning over investors and showcasing the talent available in the state.

[Related story: "From Student Project to Start Up"]

"I guess (those Legos) turned out to be the best investment in my future my parents have ever made," he quipped as he adjusted a bolt on his prototype.

They also turned out to be a great present for Nevada's economic development efforts.

The 'Sky' Is the Limit

In January, Nevada was named one of six states by the Federal Aviation Administration for drone research and development, thanks in part to the College of Engineering's existing research in the field. The governor's office of economic development, UNLV, and industry partners now are working to make Nevada a hotbed for UAVs. According to national reports, there is the potential for drone research and development to become an $89 billion industry with a local economic impact of $2.5 billion to $8.5 billion.

UAVs show particular promise for use in sites that pose imminent danger to humans, such as in mines and other confined spaces. Yim, who is a technical advisor to Skyworks, eyes the Las Vegas Strip, just two miles away from campus, for entertainment engineering applications. "I think people mostly see it for military uses, but there is a lot of other potential. Look at the Bellagio fountains -- I could see hundreds of drones making patterns in the sky too."

Skyworks' focus is on indoor technology and doesn't rely on GPS systems like many of the current systems do. Further product development could improve the level of heat resistance of its products, potentially saving the lives of firefighters unaware to what specific dangers lurk inside a burning building.

Skyworks is a prime example of the role UNLV plays in statewide economic development, said Gene Wong, an angel investor associated with the local Vegas Valley Angels investment consortium. He's become a business mentor to Skyworks team because he believes that such small startups elevate the Silver State's economy. "I really see the main infrastructure for all this as being the university -- with student-led startups creating a robust entrepreneurial community which will also attract out-of-state technology companies," added Wong, a member of the College of Engineering Advisory Board. "You've seen things like this in places like Boulder (Colo.), Austin (Texas), Utah."

A Major Minor

UNLV's economic development role also encompasses the development of the state's human capital. UNLV recently approved a minor in unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to supply the budding drone industry with highly qualified professionals. UAS includes all associated communication, navigation, and support equipment needed to build drones. Launching this fall, the 21-credit program starts with core classes in design and application; simulation and testing; and law, including the hot-button topic of privacy rights. From there, students can take one of four tracks: autonomous system design, control systems, communication systems, or human-computer interaction. "With 2,000 engineering students, even if only 1 or 2 percent of them are interested, we'll be turning out 20 or 30 future professionals," said Rama Venkat, dean of the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering.

Before launching, the college consulted with local startups, the governor's office, and area business leaders to ensure that the graduates the program turns out meet the state's workforce needs, Venkat said. "We didn't create this sitting in a vacuum. We wanted to ensure the program is relevant to the startup community."

With so many potential uses still being explored, Venkat expects to see more student-led UAV business concepts, like Skyworks, incubated in UNLV's engineering labs over the next few years.

History On Our Side

One of the greatest areas of research and development in the drone world lies in sense-and-avoid technology. This allows a UAV to maneuver and avoid objects on its own, without a human controlling it. Developing these technology solutions could come easier for UNLV, which has a longer history in UAV research than many may know.

"We have been flying UAVs for about nine or 10 years now," said William Culbreth, a longtime engineering professor. Culbreth explained how a 2007 research grant funded through the Air Force Research Laboratory with earmark funding directed by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, put Nevada on the map for drone research. UNLV faculty members from computer science and from electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering led a number of projects through the grant. Culbreth's involved using a novel diesel engine on a UAV. Students involved with the research also saw career benefits.

"Of the students who worked on the project with me, two completed their Ph.D.s and work at NSTec (National Security Technologies LLC) and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. One is finishing his Ph.D. and works for NSTec," Culbreth added.

Yim, a 26-year veteran of UNLV, has landed several National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for research on the smart materials and controls of machines that move in reaction to their environments. His work to develop "fishbots" for military applications led to research in shock-absorbing materials for combat zones, and then to robotic catheters for medical applications.

The grants helped Yim expand the base of knowledge in his sliver of the robotics world. But, he points out, they also are a key to advancing the university, and by extension, the state. "My work is far away from the stage of making money at this time," he says. "However, NSF-sponsored research is very important for economic development. Technology companies look to universities when they want to see the future; they look to see who has received NSF grants in particular areas to see what's coming in the future."

New Face

With a history of robotics research to pull from, UNLV is attracting some impressive new faculty talent. In July, Paul Oh will assume the role of Lincy Professor of Unmanned Aerial Systems. His roots in UAS research stem from the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Already an expert in robotics, he wondered if his work could be applied to flying devices to help protect first responders or to alert the public to dangers in an area. This summer, Oh is moving his UAS lab, along with the grant monies his research generates, from Drexel University to UNLV.

UNLV's commitment to economic diversification through the "nurturing of this young industry" was the key factor in his decision to move West. He was encouraged by the collaboration among the Engineering College, the governor's office, and private industry. "This is not just about me. But it's really a shared vision with Rama [Venkat] to bring a real impact on economic diversification, bring national and international attention to the area," he said. "[This] was an opportunity I couldn't simply dismiss."