Profile: Using Autonomous Aircraft to Analyze Air Samples

When Mark Palframan ’11 (below, left) sets to work at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Research Farm, no dirt is involved. His hands are on a souped-up remote control device, and his eyes look to the air, set sharp on the unmanned Electric Small Platform for Autonomous Aerial Research Operations aircraft as it soars 400 feet above the ground. With a wingspan of 12 feet, it weighs about 55 pounds.

A doctoral student, he is the designated pilot in the Nonlinear Systems Lab, run by Craig Woolsey and Mazen Farhood of the Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.

“E-SPAARO is essentially a flying pickup truck, albeit a pretty one,” Palframan said. The vehicle may be tasked with carrying a large payload, so its design is modular with changeable wings and fuselage panels. It can carry a wide array of sensors and computational equipment for handling in-flight experiments.
It is used for testing prototype wings and control surfaces, validating air-data sensors, and collecting and analyzing air samples.

Palframan’s dissertation is focused on designing, testing, and analyzing autopilot programs for autonomous aircraft. He completed his master’s under Woolsey and David Schmale III, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who studies microbes in the atmosphere and their effect on plants.

“Mark developed a system to capture particulates from the atmosphere and inject them into a miniaturized Surface Plasmon Resonance biosensor that he integrated into SPAARO,” said Woolsey. “This device can provide a precise measurement of the concentration of a specific biological agent—for example, anthrax—in a sample. As far as we know, this was the first time an SPR device had been flown and operated aboard an autonomous aircraft.”

A mechanical engineering graduate, Palframan worked with assistant professor Daniel Sabatino to build a highly precise water channel to carry out vortex visualization experiments.
—Steven D. Mackay

Editor’s Note: Adapted from “Aerospace Student Pilots Unmanned Planes with an Eye Toward a Future Academic Career,” Virginia Tech Research (Oct. 3, 2014), copyright 2014, used with permission.

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