Flying high with robotics research


The best way to track radio-tagged sturgeon as the fish travel up and down the Wolf River is from above.

The closer the tracking equipment can come, the stronger the radio signal will be. But flying near the surface of the water can be dangerous in a human-piloted airplane.

It sounds like a job for a robot or, in this case, an aerial drone.

“With drones, we can fly more often than people going out in a real plane to accomplish the task,” says Tom Consi, assistant professor of freshwater sciences and engineering. “And we can get the kinds of information that are currently not available, like the average velocity of certain kinds of fish.”

Consi calls fish-tracking a “niche” application for the robot, but notes that there are broader uses. One is multispectral imaging, a method of remotely monitoring harmful algae blooms, like red tide, to determine how fast – and where – they spread.

But it was the sturgeon-tracking, a project of another scientist at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences, that provided the impetus for two engineering undergrads, Brady Moe and Kris Rockey, to build a drone.

Developing a drone is a multidimensional task that includes aerodynamics, control, electronics and software. Before they could stock it with sensing equipment, GPS and a radio receiver, Rockey had to customize a very large remote-control model airplane to carry the gear.

“There is a relatively heavy payload,” he says. “The average weight it can handle is around two pounds. But the radio we’re using adds five pounds and is about the size of a car battery.

“We are using an industry-standard fish telemetry radio because we want to be able to compare our work to something people can already do with this equipment,” adds Rockey, who is working on his second UWM bachelor’s degree to pursue his interest in robotics.

Read more from UWM’s 2014 Research Report here