Dr. Ramazan Aygun (left front) and Dr. Farbod Fahimi (right front) pose with the 10 students selected to participate in the Unmanned Systems Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, for which they serve as co-principle investigators: Darryl McChard, Maliha Lubna, Raisa Chowdhury, and Jennifer Lee (front row); and Christian Ingham, Hilarie Pilkinton, Christopher Sebastian, Chloe McFadden, Jennifer Starck, and Evan Tingley (back row).

Michael Mercier | UAH

One of the best things about attending a Tier One research university like The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) is that it offers unparalleled research opportunities to undergraduates who would otherwise have to wait until graduate school or the workplace to get the same level of hands-on experience. A perfect example is the university's Unmanned Systems Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), which focuses on the missing links of fundamental research in five related fields of science and engineering: dynamics and controls; video processing, data mining, and compression; the human-machine interface; the physics of sensors; and material science.

"The purpose of the program is to introduce undergraduate students into research labs so that they can understand how the process works, get interested in the topics, see what their peers at the master's and Ph.D. levels are doing, and be inspired to pursue a graduate degree of their own," says assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering Dr. Farbod Fahimi, who serves as principle investigator on the program with associate professor of computer science Dr. Ramazan Aygun.

The REU, which is funded by a three-year $297,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is now in its second year. "As far as I know, this is the only site related to unmanned systems," says Dr. Fahimi. The program comprises seven research projects, each related either directly or indirectly to the improvement of unmanned systems and each overseen by a UAH professor who serves as the project's mentor. "We have a good research base in unmanned systems here and the expertise to train good students in this area," he says.

We have a good research base in unmanned systems here and the expertise to train good students in this area

Farbod Fahimi
Assistant Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering

This year, like the last, Drs. Fahimi and Aygun received dozens of applications from across the country for the 10 spots funded by the program each summer. "We accept applications through mid-April and then make our decision in mid-May," says Dr. Fahimi, adding that the selection process is not as simple as it may seem. "Sometimes a 4.0 GPA student may not perform as well in research as a 3.8, and the difference is their level of interest and independence in research."

Thus, along with their transcript and letters of recommendation, the applicants are asked to send a statement of research. This enables the mentors determine which student would make the best match for their respective projects. "It can be hard to find students who have taken all the necessary courses and who can adapt to a certain project given their background," says Dr. Aygun. "So we give the information to the mentors and they decide if the student can do the project under their guidance."

Once selected, the 10 students arrive on the UAH campus in early June, where they spend the next 10 weeks as a member of their project's research team in return for a $5000 stipend. "It's like a full-time job, with the students working 37 hours a week," says Dr. Fahimi. They're also offered free housing on the UAH campus - in addition to a lunch stipend - and they can apply for an additional stipend of up to $350 to cover travel expenses to and from UAH.

One of this year's participants is Raisa Chowdhury, a mechanical engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University who was matched with the Butterfly Flight Aerodynamics project. Under the guidance of mentor Dr. Chang-kwon Kang, she is researching the implications of flight dynamics and flapping wing aerodynamics of butterflies at high altitudes. "First we put the butterflies in a fridge to get them into that sleepy stage," she says. "Then we put reflective sticky tape on their wings, which we can pick up on the infrared cameras, so that we can release them into a vacuum chamber to simulate how they fly at 3000 feet."

As part of the program's requirements, she and Dr. Kang meet weekly with their fellow participants and mentors to share their research progress. And they, in turn, present advances made on their own projects, which include the following:

  • Autonomous Control, whose objective is to formulate control methodologies for the derivation of controllers that safely learn, in real-time and without a teacher, how to control an unmodeled system only by interacting with it. (Mentor: Dr. Fahimi)
  • Target Detection & Tracking, which comprises two sub-projects: developing reliable vision-based trajectory and target tracking for unmanned systems, and analyzing protein crystallization trials for the identification and classification of crystals using the fluorescence-based robotic microscope developed at iXpressGenes. (Mentor: Dr. Aygun)
  • Sensor Integration, whose objective is to develop and integrate sensors into unmanned aerial systems for a wide range of civilian missions. (Mentor: Dr. D. Brian Landrum)
  • Structural Health Monitoring, which comprises two sub-projects: investigating the use of small-size piezoelectric fibers to provide directional strain measurements in aerospace structures, and formulating and testing constitutive models for newly developed composite structures with integrated piezoelectric fiber sensors. (Mentor: Dr. Gang Wang)
  • Data & Video Compression, whose objective is to create a highly efficient data and video compression algorithm. (Mentor: Dr. W. David Pan)
  • Biochemical Characterization, whose objective is to determine the specific catalytic activity of the family I archaeal inorganic pyrophosphatase under different temperatures and pH and ionic concentrations; to ascertain the binding capacity of its ligands; and to conduct functional and mutagenesis studies based on structural information. (Mentor: Dr. Joseph Ng)

Eventually, says Dr. Fahimi, the hope is that these projects will "lead to at least some publications." But that's not the only deliverable they're required to provide to the NSF in return for funding - or to improve their chances of renewing the grant once the current one concludes next summer. "We have to report on how we improved over the three years and where we're going from here," he says. "And we will also be tracking the students to see if they pursue an advanced degree in engineering."

Should they do so, there's no doubt that their experience in the REU will have served its intended purpose of preparing them for what to expect as a researcher. Though Dr. Fahimi concedes there are some essential traits that cannot be taught. "They need to be self-motivated, be interested in learning, and be ok with being frustrated until they find the answer," he says. "After all, that's the way research really is!"