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Engineering Expo team develops low cost drone for infrastructure inspections

The Engineering Expo, the culmination of the Senior Design Course, is set to take place in person this year for the first time since 2019. ECE Team 13 is working hard to put the finishing touches on their project, a drone that can hover along the underside of a bridge.

Seniors Tien Dao, Hardik Goel, Sarthak Hans, Jaden Mossman, and Anand Pudi took on a project sponsored by Professor Ahmet Cetin. They designed and built an affordable drone tool that can be used to inspect the undersides of bridges to detect cracks and other visible structural issues.

The use of drones for infrastructure inspections has been expanding, as these vital safety checks can be risky and dangerous to workers, and expensive. While drones for inspection already exist, they are cost prohibitive, and Cetin wanted a low-cost design.

“The majority of drones on the market are a minimum of $500,” Hans said. “We were thinking of building our own drone, but that’s another project in itself.”

With a budget of just $250, Team 13 made it happen. They purchased an open-source drone, the DJI Tello, due to its ease of programming and affordability. They added a basket to the drone that they laser cut at the UIC Makerspace for the camera and built a prop guard that resembles skis atop the drone, which glide along the underside surface of a bridge.

“Our drone makes contact with the ceiling, pressing against it for stability,” Dao said. “That stability allows us to take high-quality pictures of the surface.”

The team built its own control system, coordinating communication between their microcontrollers and the drone, then the drone and the computer.  They have been training their image algorithm to only detect cracks and ignore other visuals.

The weight of their added components was also a challenge, requiring a lot of testing to determine the maximum load of the drone.

“It’s safe to say we can carry about 80 to 100 grams; if you push it one gram higher than the stability of the flight will not be great,” Hans said. “We originally designed the cage to have ball bearings that could slide under the bridge, but we wanted something lighter to maximize the weight capacity.”

Mossman, who designed the control system, is the team’s designated drone pilot.

Dao and Hans said the project has been a great learning experience, from working in a group environment to tackling problems and issues from start to finish. They both said they learned things far beyond theoretical classroom work, which will help them in their careers as engineers.

As for what is next following graduation, Dao and Pudi both plan on attending graduate school. Goel plans to work as an embedded engineer. After taking amonth off to relax, Mossman will begin work as a firmware engineer with the Chamberlain Group, a company where he worked as an intern the last two summers. Hans is a first-semester senior and will graduate later this year.

The team will be one of hundreds from UIC’s College of Engineering showcasing their projects at the Engineering Expo held at the UIC Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum on Friday, April 21, from noon to 4 p.m.