Drone wind studies, water rescue manikins, and underwater robots tracking a fluorescent dye: these were not scenes from a science fiction movie but research that was part of a recent field campaign led by Virginia Tech investigators Shane Ross and David Schmale.

Ross and Schmale brought six undergraduate students from partnering colleges to Virginia Tech to conduct data and decisions research in March during spring break.

The students came from Morehouse College in Georgia, an all-male historically Black college and university (HBCU), Bennett College in North Carolina, an all-female HBCU, and Hampden Sydney College in Virginia, an all-male college.

“The field campaign was a really valuable experience for the visiting students. They collected data and learned to make decisions from their data. We have submitted grants to continue collaborating with faculty at these three colleges. We hope to bring more undergraduate students to Virginia Tech for summer research experiences in the area of biological transport,” said Schmale, professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

On the cold and windy first day of the research campaign, the students participated in drone wind-monitoring experiments at the Kentland Experimental Aerial Systems (KEAS) laboratory located at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm agricultural research facility.

“We explained to the students why it is important to measure the weather and wind with drones. With this technology, we have the potential to monitor the spread of plant diseases and even the spread of wildfires with on-the-spot accuracy,” said Ross, professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering.

The students were divided into two drone teams, with three students to each team. One team made direct measurements of wind using a unique weather station mounted on top of the drone. The other team made indirect measurements of wind, estimated from the motion of the drone. Schmale worked closely with one team, and Javier González-Rocha, a Ph.D. student in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, worked with the other team. Each team worked together to safely operate the drones, record important details of the experiments, and download and curate data off the drones.

“This research campaign placed students right in the middle of the action. They had to work and communicate across the fields of engineering and biology. They got to see an engineer and mathematician (Ross) speak about biology and a biologist (Schmale) speak in the language of an engineer. When you are participating in interdisciplinary research, it’s always important to be humble, stay engaged, and ask questions,” said Schmale.

The students came to the field campaign from diverse scientific and educational backgrounds. There were three biology students and three engineering students within the group. Trent Malone, Donovan Hardy, and Bryan Bloomfield came from Morehouse College; Milan Tisdale and Arianna Shynett came from Bennett College; and Damian Martinez Pineda came from Hampden Sydney College.

“These students chose to spend their spring break participating in this research involving the use of unique sensor-based assets and computational-based assets at Virginia Tech. The students’ work helped them to gain a better understanding of how to best apply their technical skillsets toward addressing complex data science challenges. As a result, students were able to broaden their perspective of possible graduate studies, research opportunities, and career paths post-graduation,” said Eddie C. Red, Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Physics & Dual-Degree Engineering Program, Morehouse College.