It’s 6 a.m. in the middle of nowhere, and the students unload tables, laptops and huge television screens from the trailer. They look up at the cloudless San Luis Obispo sky and ask each other: Is it too windy? Too hot? No, they decide, it’s just right.
They pull out what looks like a souped-up remote-controlled car, scrutinize it to make sure nothing has broken, and gingerly set it down. The vehicle is not an off-the-shelf toy; it is equipped with a wireless router, a webcam, electrical cables and rubber wheels. It is the product of nearly a year of design, building and computer coding.
Soon, they will find out if their hard work will pay off.
The Cal Poly Pomona students are testing the unmanned ground vehicle they’ve built, or a UGV. Partnering with Northrop Grumman and a team of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students, they use unmanned vehicles to simulate search-and-rescue missions. Cal Poly Pomona is in charge of the vehicle control station and communication, as well as three vehicles: the UGV; a quadcopter, which is a small helicopter with four rotors; and an unmanned aerial vehicle, or a UAV, which looks like a miniaturized private airplane. Cal Poly SLO also configures an UAV. The students have been working with Northrup Grumman for three years, and are back for another run.
This year’s demonstration is May 31, and the students have a detailed idea of how the day will go. A Cal Poly Pomona student and a Cal Poly SLO student take turns sending a UAV and the quadcopter up into the air. Avoiding a collision with the quadcopter, the UAV autonomously uses its sensors to find a target — a red rubber ball — and hovers over it. When it does, the student types in another string of code and hits the enter button on the keyboard. The Northrop Grumman representatives nod with approval, while the students congratulate each other.
But they aren’t done yet.
Prompted by the same string of code, Cal Poly Pomona’s UGV now zooms off the sidelines. It autonomously moves toward the water bottle, using its own programming and hardware to conquer the terrain. The UGV skitters around the field, making zigzag patterns, veering left and right to dodge rocks and holes.
It nudges the ball, pauses, and begins to retreat back to its starting point. The two students type in the confirmation command. The hovering UAV drops the water bottle from its hold, sending the crowd into cheers.
Of course, anything can go wrong: a broken string of code, missing pieces, bad weather.
Northrop Grumman enjoys sponsoring the project and working with the teams. “The students are passionate, dedicated and have the real-world experience that supersedes an internship experience,” says Ben Chulaluxsiriboon, the company’s leadership development specialist. “The desire to be successful — you can’t teach that.”
Some of the students on the project end up at the company after graduation, using their learn-by-doing training in their work. “They come on to Northrop Grumman and we already know their skill set,” Chulaluxsiriboon says.
This type of project is preparing students for the professional world. Hovig Yaralian, an aerospace engineering student, says that getting the 70-member team — aerospace, computer science, electrical and mechanical engineers, and even a few business majors — to be in the same place at the same time is challenging. Although finding solutions to their problems can be frustrating, he says that a successful demonstration is worth it.
“You learn a lot in a multidisciplinary project,” Yaralian says. “In real life, you work with all kinds of majors.”
Kevin La, a graduate electrical engineering student and Cal Poly Pomona’s team leader, says that the students involved with the project learn indispensable skills for the workplace. The two teams have to send each other files back and forth and update each other on their progress.
“Having part of our project 200 miles away helps us learn how to work over a virtual network,” La says. “One of the biggest things about being an engineer is learning how to communicate.”
La, who has been a part of the project since its formation and now works as a systems engineer at Northrop Grumman, knows its benefits firsthand.
“It’s had the biggest impact on me,” he says. “I landed my dream job. I couldn’t have done it without this program.”
The project is jointly supervised by Aerospace Engineering Professor Subodh Bhandari, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professors Zekeriya Aliyazicioglu and Scott Boskovich, and Computer Science Professor Daisy Tang.