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Undergraduates to design robots for Appalachia’s challenges at WVU summer research program

Trees and fallen logs in the background behind a flying drone

From experimenting with robots that off-road autonomously down country roads, to designing drones that can fly through Appalachia’s dense forest canopies, students who join the WVU Undergraduate Research Experience this summer will do hands-on, real-world work aimed at solving the problems of remote mountain communities. (WVU Photo/Guilherme Pereira)

Starting this summer, undergraduate students will perform hands-on, cutting-edge robotics research that solves real-world problems in Appalachia while working in the five robotics labs at West Virginia University.

Story by WVU Today
Photos by WVU Today


The WVU Research Experience for Undergraduates program is funded by a $454,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and is accepting applications from undergraduates in the U.S. through May 10.

Participants in the 10-week program, which starts May 20, will perform experimental research that responds to several challenges of using mobile robotics for field applications within rural environments like Appalachia’s dense forests and harsh terrains.

Mentored by faculty members from the robotics program within the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, the undergraduates will conduct independent research in areas such as drone navigation in forests, using autonomous blimps to monitor a farm or helping robots make decisions when driving on forest trails.

“This project aims to open opportunities for participants, largely from the Appalachian region, to use robotics as a tool to enable change,” said Jason Gross, principal investigator, REU site director, and associate professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical, Materials and Aerospace Engineering.

“As an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates site, we’ll be investigating practical questions that must be addressed to enable the use of robotics in rural settings like much of Appalachia. We are excited that the project focuses on robotics application domains that are relevant to the state and region and that we have this opportunity to explore how robotics can better contribute to the WVU land-grant mission.”

Students from institutions in Appalachia are especially encouraged to apply.

Application reviews will start immediately and positions will be filled on a rolling basis.

According to Gross, participants will study how a drone can fly through vegetation, how to track GPS under a forest canopy and how robotics can adapt swarming behaviors from models found in nature, among other topics critical to building robots that can function in remote, mountainous regions.

For example, Gross explained, “Flying drones is complicated under forest canopies because the availability and quality of the Global Navigation Satellite System are hindered by the signal attenuation of dense forests. On the other hand, this presents an interesting problem, because GNSS is not completely unavailable for use — it can be made available when going above tree cover. Since the nature of tree cover is that some light shines through, students who work on this problem will explore solutions like pairing a fisheye camera with GNSS signals to predict signal quality.”

Guilherme Pereira, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Materials and Aerospace Engineering, is co-principal investigator and associate director of the REU site. Pereira pointed to the fact that although important management and preservation activities in Appalachian forests rely on surveying large areas to detect invasive species, fires and tree diseases, current surveying approaches are limited.

“Surveying of our forests is limited in scale by human resources,” Pereira said. “It’s limited by safety when it’s done with manned airplanes and it’s limited by accuracy when we rely on satellite imagery. To overcome these limitations, the use of drones flying under the canopy of the forests has been suggested — but flying in a forest is challenging both due to the large number of unmapped obstacles that need to be avoided and the presence of small flexible obstacles like leaves and twigs that can trap the drone.

“Our student researchers will solve this problem by developing a resilient, intelligent drone that can collide with obstacles to classify them. Once the objects are classified, the drone can deal with them by avoiding or pushing them away.”

All students receive a $700 weekly stipend in addition to coverage of their lodging, meals, travel and training. The program will host ten students a year over the summers of 2024, 2025 and 2026.

Applicants will have the opportunity to specify their research interests and to be assigned to work with mentors including Gross, Pereira, professor Yu Gu, assistant professor Nicholas Szczecinski, research assistant professor Cagri Kilic, assistant professor Xi Yu and teaching assistant professor Dimas Abreu Archanjo Dutra in the WVU Navigation LabField and Aerial Robotics LaboratoryNeuro-Mechanical Intelligence Laboratory, Autonomous Multi-Agent Systems Lab and Interactive Robotics Laboratory.

“The undergraduates who join us this summer will conduct independent research on problems with significant societal impact,” Gross said. “They’ll participate in panel discussions, weekly research presentations, a research symposium, and many other activities — but most of all they will advance the state of the art of mobile robotics.”

Find the program application.



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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