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Skydancers: UNLV Drone Work Expands Entertainment Possibilities

UNLV engineering faculty and students turned to the entertainment arena to carve out their unique research niche.

Research  |  Dec 6, 2016  |  By Raegen Pietrucha

UNLV engineering professor Si Jung “SJ” Kim, undergraduate researchers Tw Lee and Martin Jaime-Viveros are developing the Flying Circus, a troupe of performing drones. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Photo Services)

At first glance, the contraption looks like your average drone: frame, motor, battery, propellers. Truth be told, without the minds of a UNLV team dreaming something greater for it, the drone is average.

But this drone is a member of the Flying Orchestra. Like the Bellagio’s fountain show, the Flying Orchestra promises to revolutionize entertainment by combining two “media” that traditionally stood apart. Instead of music and water, in this case, the Flying Orchestra synchronizes music and flight.

For engineering professor Si Jung “SJ” Kim and undergraduate researcher Martin Jaime-Viveros, research work on the Flying Orchestra has swiftly transformed to play. The drone and its siblings will one day rock the sky, dancing in choreographed patterns to any music our hearts desire.

The Flying Orchestra’s origin seems serendipitous and inevitable at the same time. When Kim arrived at UNLV in 2014, he noticed that Nevada was one of only seven U.S. states focusing on drone research. Wanting to differentiate himself from others in his field, Kim drew from Vegas’ entertainment staple — shows — and created the drone troupe, which brought Vegas flair to his engineering background. 

Jaime-Viveros had been dabbling in bioinformatics, robotics, and embedded systems labs on campus when the opportunity to join Kim’s project presented itself. It would prove to help him chart a course not only for drones, but also his future. 

Kim: One of my jobs at UNLV is recruiting students to engage in research. At the time, (fellow engineering professor) Venki Muthukumar was my neighbor in the Science and Engineering Building, and whenever we’d meet on the floor in the hallway, we’d chat. I told him I was looking for a highly motivated and creative student to work on my Flying Orchestra project, and he mentioned Martin.

Jaime-Viveros: I’d worked in a few different labs before, and as I gained experience, I realized I wanted to get involved in artificial intelligence. Dr. Muthukumar introduced me to Dr. Kim, and in talking to him and learning more about the Flying Orchestra project, I wanted to get involved.

Kim: When Martin told me about the Java script and drone work he’d done, I had no further questions. I knew he’d be a good fit in my lab.

So began the journey toward transforming drones into dance machines. Jaime-Viveros jumped right into building out the orchestra alongside engineering professor Peter Stubberud, co-principal investigator on the project; researcher Paolo Ginobbi; and fellow students Brandon Navarro-Ontiver and Su Jin Park.

The team explored different drone models together and ultimately selected an augmented reality model from France. Jaime-Viveros developed a functional block diagram visualizing all the program modules necessary to send and receive data as well as the electrical components the team would have to develop.

Where to best place the modem that assigns IP addresses to each drone, thereby enabling multiple drones to be controlled as an individual unit, would prove challenging. But Kim’s lab is a safe place where conventions are challenged and students learn through their own trial and error. It’s the kind of space that allowed Jaime-Viveros to develop a simple yet effective method for controlling the drones without an orientation.

Kim: Here’s my philosophy on interacting with students: I have to give them an opportunity to learn for themselves first. Whenever there’s something we need to design and develop, I ask them if they think they can do the task themselves first. If they say yes, then I give them the opportunity to try. If they say no, I give them a concept so they can figure out a way to conduct their work. Then, we meet, and I provide feedback on their trials.

Jaime-Viveros: I came in with skills I’d learned in class and experience I gained in previous labs, but the training I’ve received here is mentoring. I’ve been able to gain new perspectives that have changed my attitudes, caused me to be skeptical about the results we generated, and pushed me to ask the right questions that enable that skepticism. For example, when we tell a drone to go straight, whether it goes straight or not, we can ask why it did what it did and verify that.

Kim: My team members are very expressive and challenging. That’s part of how they contribute to the project, and without that, there’s no way the project can be successful. I learn from them all the time.

Jaime-Viveros: We’re able to argue with each other constructively. We often disagree about our approaches, but we always manage to compromise or persuade each other and keep the project improving and moving forward.

Kim: All the students on this project play important roles, like a gear mechanism. Without one gear, the whole project can’t move forward, which means I need to trust my students and actually rely on these team members. And I do.

Kim couples his technical lessons for student researchers with professional skill building. Kim uses the “project deferment process” to develop student organizational skills and patience. He asks them to step back from building, take a bird’s-eye view of the project, and design before rushing forward with implementation.  

These soft skills that Jaime-Viveros was picking up in the lab would prove useful in his dealings with outside organizations and vendors. Ordering and setting up IP sensors on the drones required effective communication, negotiation, and collaboration—all areas in which Jaime-Viveros now excels, Kim noted. 

Jaime-Viveros: Communicating with vendors and dealing with technical support was very new to me. It was a little nerve-racking at first when I had to contact a really experienced engineer on the outside who doesn’t know me. I didn’t know how he was going to react when I had to explain things to him that he was an expert in. But I learned how to deal with people better. Engineering is not just about solving problems with yourself. From what I’ve seen, it’s mostly about solving problems with other people.

Kim: Students on this project are very creative, and that creativity always manages to bring in ideas that help us solve problems and overcome any challenges or difficulties, both in and outside of the lab.

One difficulty that usually arises for every researcher at some point is the financial kind. Jaime-Viveros is grateful for the hourly wage he receives at Kim’s lab, a place he spends roughly 20 hours in each week independent of his credit hours.

Jaime-Viveros recalls that, earlier in his academic career, when he worked off campus doing carpentry or washing cars, he felt more disconnected from his undergraduate experience. He’d come to class, leave to work, and go home in the evenings exhausted.

At a certain point, he noticed he was keeping up academically but falling behind his peers professionally. Some of his fellow students had landed internships or were working on personal projects on campus to build their resumes, getting ahead outside of class in ways that would undoubtedly impact their careers for the better. If they could land these gigs on campus, why couldn’t he?

The lab is now Jaime-Viveros’ second home. Even when he’s not working on the Flying Orchestra, you can often find him there, wrapping up his regular schoolwork or just taking a breather.

He now has a better understanding of the job market he’ll enter as well as what it’s like to work in his field. His next step after graduation: to obtain a graduate degree in computer science right here at UNLV, continuing his work on the Flying Orchestra. 

Kim: We have big plans for this Flying Orchestra research. My immediate goal is to finish this project and sell it to one of the hotels on the Strip. After that, I’d like to propose another project synchronizing multiple drones outdoors. All this means I want to continue on, hopefully with Martin and other students interested in the project as their dissertation focus.

Jaime-Viveros: This has been a big learning experience for me. In addition to the technical skills, I realized that I love working with people as a team, directing other students, and being directed by my mentors. The flying orchestra we’re creating together will be a dynamic instrument to create a new kind of art with robots and music. It’s incredible.