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CSE researchers developing longer-flying, solar-powered drones

By Kevin Coss

Over the past two years, Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy (MnDRIVE) has allowed the University of Minnesota to advance further in areas of research strength. The $18 million annual investment by the State of Minnesota targets four key research areas that aim to address grand societal challenges.

But the state isn’t the only driver of research in these areas. Outside organizations have provided funding to all four research areas related to MnDRIVE: Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing; Global Food Ventures; Advancing Industry, Conserving our Environment; and Discoveries and Treatments for Brain Conditions. When combined with transdisciplinary funding and other MnDRIVE efforts, these research areas have garnered a total of $57 million in external funding since MnDRIVE launched.

Example of success

One example of the externally funded research now underway is research on solar-powered drones.

As uninhabited aerial vehicles, or UAVs, become a more common tool in agriculture and industry, U researcher Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, Ph.D., is working to take these machines’ capabilities to new heights.

Papanikolopoulos, director of the U’s Center for Distributed Robotics and professor of computer science and engineering with the College of Science and Engineering, recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop the world’s smallest solar-powered UAV that is capable of flying for multiple days on end. The work is based on early research supported by MnDRIVE Robotics, Sensors and Advanced Manufacturing.

The UAV’s long flight duration and small size will make it practical for a wide range of uses, including monitoring atmospheric turbulence to optimize energy production in wind turbines, harnessing precision agriculture techniques to maximize crop yield and detecting the growth of harmful algae to aid in ensuring aquatic ecosystems remain safe for recreation and as a water supply.

Reprinted with permission from Inquiry.