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Project Has Students Reinventing Drones Into Remote Sensing UAVs

Published: May 15, 2013

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are being reinvented from missile-launching eyes in the sky to 21st century mapmakers thanks to a collaboration between CSULB senior industrial design (ID) class, the Geography Department, and the Anthropology Department’s archaeology program for possibly commercializing remote-sensing UAVs for surveying terrain.

“We’ve broken down the different aspects of the project to allow every student to be involved in the process and even get students from other departments involved,” explained Ivana Monson, who will complete her bachelor’s of science degree in industrial design this month. “There are four groups—user experience, packaging, launch and recovery and documentation.”

The project is supervised by Industrial Design Department faculty member Max Beach, a past chair of the Los Angeles chapter of the Industrial Design Society of America.

“I believe both departments benefitted greatly from this collaboration,” said Beach, an industrial design lecturer with more than 13 years’ experience in product, multi-media exhibit design, and a founding partner of the Culver City-based design firm IDA. “The teamwork between departments is instrumental in providing students with a more hands on experience of working with disparate disciplines with common/aligning objectives.

Max Beach
Industrial Design students Coree Knox (l) and Brian Ricketts.

“The geography and anthropology departments saw an opportunity for design within their own fields of research and knew there was the possibility of commercial viability if developed properly,” he added. “The ID students were fortunate enough to have these super users on campus to provide feedback on approach and validate findings. Bi-weekly presentations and work sessions with the two departments kept this fast-paced project focused.”

At the senior level in industrial design, Beach believes in stressing the importance of designing beyond the object. “A project like this provides opportunities to examine multiple-user scenarios, psychology of brand communication and systems to integrate existing and custom hardware and components,” he said. “This was the main reason we broke the class up into smaller groups that were able to focus on different aspects of the project and bring it back to the larger team for discussion.”

The user-experience group analyzed the needs of CSULB clients in geography and archaeology. Its job is to create a design brief that supplies the other groups with in-depth information on the user’s needs and wants as well as establish overall goals of the project.

“The package group is concerned with the internal components of the UAV, using the Skywalker x8 as a basis,” Monson explained. “They are working with members of the Engineering Department to understand the inner workings of the UAV and find new ways of composing them to make it easier for the user to put together. They are constructing the electronics housing and developing the schematics in such a way that a person with little knowledge on the subject could put it together.”

The launch and recovery group looks at UAV use from how it is carried to how it is stored, launched, recovered and its information retrieved. “They are developing add-on features that can improve these different aspects of the user experience,” she said.

Monson leads the documentation group, which follows each team’s activity, ensuring that everything is photographed and recorded. This group also is in charge of promoting the project to the community and creating a brand image for the commercialization of the UAV or the creative marketing aspect of designing a new product.

“While it is true that the UAV’s most standard use is to take aerial photographs, there is software that can stitch the aerial photos together to create the user’s personal map. What you do with that is up to you,” Monson pointed out. “Geographers and archaeologists look at changes in terrain. Firefighters can use UAVs to monitor forest safety. There is software that measures elevation. There are many different kinds of software and cameras to collect different types of information.”

Max Beach
Industrial Design’s Max Beach

Price was an issue from the beginning, she recalled. When geography and archaeology faculty approached industrial design about the UAVs, the kind of kit they wanted was very expensive—$50,000—the market price for a “plug-and-play” UAV. In the end, geology and archaeology decided to buy the parts separately and put them together, which cost about $2,000. But, there is no comprehensive standard way to put together a UAV.

Optimism was hard to come by at first. “We took a look at it, and it was incredibly complicated,” said Monson. “We are industrial designers with no knowledge of UAV assembly. To put the internal components together, you need an electrical engineering background and we didn’t have that. We could see that putting this together would be a challenge.”

The ID senior design class recruited advisors from the Mechanical Engineering Department who offered opinions and feedback about how to configure the components and what certain things were. The packaging group did a really good job of figuring it out, Monson said.

The launch and recovery group made early progress. “When industrial design joined the project, the preferred launching method was to throw the UAV by hand,” she remembered. “That leaves a lot of room for human error. Landing the UAV meant letting it hit the ground. This is something very expensive to just let crash. It’s okay if the airframe gets a little damaged, but the interior is really expensive. What add-ons could these designers create that would make users feel more comfortable launching and recovering the UAV?”

One of industrial design’s most visible contributions was the nose wear created to soften hard landings called the skid plate. The carbon fiber cover protects the nose and hinges on the wings. Monson called it a simple, affordable solution. The team then created a launch rail that replaced hands-on launches with a kind of giant bungee cord.

Another problem for UAV research is the remote locations where the UAVs can be most useful. “Sometimes that involves a lot of hiking,” Monson noted. “So we decided to convert the launch rail into a dolly with a backpack for ease of carrying.”

The team created a mock website at http://ivanamonson.wix.com/plane-view, which served to illustrate the potential business uses of UAVs. “UAVs have received their share of negative press because people are afraid of having them in their communities and spy on them,” she said. “We wanted to show a UAV isn’t just for aggressive purposes. It can be used for research and rescues as well as marketing. It can be used for everything from emergency aid to monitoring forest fires, to photographing an athlete. We decided that if we were to really start such a company, we would ask all their clients to register their UAV’s purpose. If there is any misconduct, this would be one way of tracking it. Additionally, if we color coded them so that the public can easily identify their purpose, then everyone might be a little more comfortable with UAVs.”

Beach pointed to the project’s real-world significance for the students. “My hope is the students see not only the value but the necessity of collaboration as it prevails in most industries,” he said. “Being able to communicate objectives, strategic and tactical approaches (visually and verbally) with other groups can put designers in a position of leadership.”

Monson hopes the success of the UAV research will serve as notice to the Southern California community of industrial design’s importance at CSULB.

“I want everyone to know how relevant industrial design is,” she said. “I want them to know industrial design can play an integral role in any creative project, from designing a toaster to creating a cell phone or flying a UAV. You cannot do it with only engineers and marketing. You need a designer who can think holistically. That’s our job, to think about the complete story, not just how to sell it or how it works, but how to make it beautiful as well as sensible. When things look good and make sense, the world is a better place.”