Fresno State students build unmanned aircraft

The 30-pound aircraft looks like an overgrown toy -- until Fresno State engineering students start describing the onboard sensors, video feed, high-power laser and more.

Then it sounds more like the sophisticated feat of engineering that was demonstrated this month at Edwards Air Force Base. The aircraft is the product of a two-year collaboration between the base and the Lyles College of Engineering that has exposed students to current avionic technologies and potential careers at the Air Force Flight Test Center.

For students, one immediate payoff has been working with some of the same systems used by military and defense contractors as the students designed and built their "unmanned aerial vehicle," or UAV.

Jon Flerchinger, 31, graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering. He said he appreciated the chance to work on a complex project while knowing "that I won't be fired for messing it up."

The student product is a cousin of multimillion-dollar drones deployed today in the Middle East to gather intelligence or spot targets for missiles and bombs. The connection is distant but real -- like a house cat to tiger, said Gregory Kriehn, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who is one of several faculty advisers on the project.

Fresno State's latest version can fly independently, transmit high-definition video and fire a lime-green laser at a target on the ground.

Some say the near-instantaneous video feed, global positioning system and other capabilities could offer practical uses outside the military.

For example, Kriehn said, the vehicle could help farmers eyeball field conditions or help federal authorities find marijuana groves in national forests.

The advantage is "real-time analysis with pinpoint accuracy," he said. Officials are just starting to fully explore those ideas and reach out to potential industries.

More than a dozen students have worked on the vehicle, traveling twice to Edwards to demonstrate prototypes. Representatives at the base -- which has provided about $200,000 -- declined to comment for this story.

Officials approached the university's engineering college in spring 2008, campus officials said last fall. Students and professors say Edwards is interested in cultivating talent and also in giving exposure to the out-of-the-way base, which is situated east of Bakersfield and in the western upper Mojave Desert.

"They're paying to get a guaranteed pool of students who have worked on stuff that is similar to what they work on," Flerchinger said.

Kriehn said several Fresno State students associated with the project now are working in internships or are being hired by Edwards.

Other students also say they're interested in a military or defense contractor career path. But even those with different plans say they've gained valuable experience with the project.

Students started from scratch. What kind of vehicle? Gas or electric? What sensors should be on board?

"We had to have a product that would work in the real world," Flerchinger said.

They've worked with three versions -- Alpha, Beta and Gamma, named for the first three letters of the Greek alphabet -- that were built from radio-controlled model airplane kits.

Students experimented with prototypes at an airfield north of Fresno -- testing accuracy and trouble-shooting problems such as vibrations that jostled the camera.

The sensor package includes GPS, WiFi, a differential barometer to monitor altitude, a magnetometer for direction and gyroscopes for orientation.

Beta -- the model demonstrated this month at Edwards -- can fly autonomously around a GPS location and also transmit video to a command center, where the flight is controlled and monitored.

As the plane flies and changes orientation, sensor systems track the target and relative orientation of the plane, Kriehn said. A microcontroller on board steers the gimbal -- which houses the camera and laser -- to continually aim at the target.

"Wherever the camera looks, the laser can point," said Freddy Lopez, 33, a recent Fresno State engineering graduate.

Monday, Kriehn said officials just received word that Edwards will provide $30,000 for another phase of the project. Students will concentrate on figuring out how several aircraft can communicate with each other and also track a moving target.

Work already continues this summer in a campus engineering lab. Lopez said the research project experience is invaluable.

"All the theory comes alive here," he said.