Drone technology featured in 2021 CITRIS Campus Seed Funding Awards

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By: Public Affairs

The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) and the Banatao Institute at UC Santa Cruz have selected three winning projects for the 2021 CITRIS Campus Seed Funding program, which this year focused on drone-related work. This year’s projects deal with a range of pressing issues, including food supply, water, and wildfires.

“Our 2021 call for proposals added the unique element of including a specific technology platform, in this case drones, to coincide with a new programmatic focus on aviation and a new initiative here at UCSC, which we’ll be announcing in the coming weeks,” said CITRIS UCSC Campus Director J.J. Garcia-Luna-Acevez, distinguished professor of computer science and engineering. “As in past years, we were thrilled to see the range of creativity and commitment to exploring innovative solutions to our shared challenges displayed by the UCSC research community. We’re excited to support this year’s teams.”

The CITRIS UCSC Campus Seed Funding program provides funding up to $40,000 for individual projects that prioritize collaboration between principal investigators (PIs) from at least two separate campus divisions and use information technology to solve a significant societal challenge.

Measuring the fate of snowmelt

Water melted from the Sierra Nevada snowpack is critical for California’s economy and ecosystems, making up a critical portion of the state’s water supply. Despite this importance, we do not know how climate-related changes to the snowpack will be affected by the physical soil structure and feedback on plant root development. Many critical watersheds face increasing water and forest management issues due in large part to recent population growth, increasing water demands, wildfire risk, fluctuating year-to-year snowpack levels, and increased drought severity.

To help address this challenge, PI Michael Loik from Environmental Studies and co-PI Margaret Zimmer from Earth & Planetary Sciences will use drone flights to capture data on evapotranspiration (ET, water loss from leaves and soils). Using that data, they will create spatial “heat maps” showing daily and seasonal ET from different shrub species and open soil in relation to prior snow depth. These data can be used for projection of water availability in communities that rely on remote watersheds, for the prediction of and response to wildfires, and for the protection of endangered species.

Online plant disease detection

Plant diseases in agriculture cause loss of crop yield, reduced food quality, supply chain disruption, and excessive preemptive use of toxic pesticides. Diseases in wildlands disrupt ecological processes, increase intensity of wildfires, and lead to quarantines with widespread economic impacts. Vast fields and remote, inaccessible forest areas make traditional methods of detection, which require physical inspection, impractical. Capturing aerial data, while faster, can still present long processing delays before actionable results are available, which prohibits real-time and online investigation of sites of interest.

PI Steve McGuire from Electrical and Computer Engineering and co-PI Greg Gilbert from Environmental Studies will use drone-based multispectral sensors combined with a machine learning back end to create a rapid-assessment tool for detecting disease outbreaks, allowing operators to investigate these areas of interest directly and take action.

Wildfire risk assessment

Monitoring the conditions in vast, inaccessible forest areas can be next to impossible, but is critical in predicting and mitigating wildfires. PI Katia Obraczka from Computer Science and Engineering and co-PIs Kai Zhu from Environmental Studies and Ricardo Sanfelice from Electrical and Computer Engineering are developing a low-cost network of both ground- and UAV-based sensors to continuously collect fine-grained environmental data to improve the accuracy of wildfire risk assessment models. The system aims to assist in predicting near-future extreme weather events, and to provide a decision support tool to help mitigate the threat wildfires pose to communities.

"We are very grateful to CITRIS UCSC for the support,” said Professor Obraczka. “It will allow us to jump-start the development of EUREKA, which will help mitigate wildfire risk by providing environmental information at adequate spatio-temporal timescales and thus improve the accuracy of wildfire risk assessment models."

The Center of Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) is a multi-campus initiative focused on research and emerging technologies. Established in 2001, CITRIS and the Banatao Institute leverages the interdisciplinary research strengths of UC Santa Cruz, Berkeley, Davis, and Merced to advance the University of California's mission. The institute was created to shorten the pipeline between world-class laboratory research and the development of impact applications, platforms, companies, and new industries. Together with many public and private partners, the institute is shaping the future of technology in ways that cross traditional boundaries.