Media Releases

U of T Engineering receives $1.65 million from NSERC to CREATE 150 drone experts

May 20, 2015

Toron­to, ON — The word ‘drone’ often con­jures up inva­sive images of mil­i­tary air­craft, but if Pro­fes­sor Hugh Liu (UTIAS) has his way, that per­cep­tion is about to change. Liu has just received $1.65 mil­lion from the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da (NSERC) to train 150 new experts in the use of unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles (UAVs) for a vari­ety of use­ful pur­pos­es, from agri­cul­ture to envi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing.

Ed Hold­er, Canada’s Min­is­ter of State for Sci­ence and Tech­nol­o­gy, shared the news today at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies (UTIAS). Liu’s project is one of 17 from across Cana­da to receive a total of $28 mil­lion through NSERC’s Col­lab­o­ra­tive Research and Train­ing Expe­ri­ence (CREATE) Pro­gram this year.

“This grant will allow us to work close­ly with indus­try part­ners to explore new appli­ca­tions in this emerg­ing mar­ket,” said Liu. “It will give our stu­dents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence and to pre­pare them­selves to be the lead­ers in the field.”

As founder of the Flight Sys­tems and Con­trol (FSC) Research Lab­o­ra­to­ry at UTIAS, Liu and his team are experts in autonomous­ly con­trolled flight. They design com­put­er algo­rithms sim­i­lar to those used in the autopi­lot soft­ware for com­mer­cial air­craft.

For exam­ple, a pas­sen­ger plane con­tains an altime­ter that mea­sures how high the air­craft is above the ground. The algo­rithm would take this input data and use it to deter­mine how much to boost or cut the engines in order to main­tain a con­stant cruis­ing alti­tude.

While com­mer­cial flights are impor­tant, Liu’s algo­rithms designed for UAVs can han­dle much more sophis­ti­cat­ed inputs. For instance, one recent project with the Ontario Min­istry of Nat­ur­al Resources out­fit­ted UAVs with ther­mal cam­eras, tuned to infrared light giv­en off by hot objects.

Liu and his team designed algo­rithms that would enable the UAVs to find the edge of the blaze and fly along it. In this way, UAVs could help track the extent and spread of for­est fires much more accu­rate­ly than is cur­rent­ly pos­si­ble, a boon to fire­fight­ers every­where.

Anoth­er recent inno­va­tion was the cre­ation of algo­rithms for syn­chro­nized flight. This allows a swarm of drones to sense each other’s loca­tion and to fly as a coher­ent unit.

Fly­ing in for­ma­tion is crit­i­cal as many com­mer­cial­ly-avail­able drones are too small to car­ry large pay­loads. If they can act togeth­er as a team, with each UAV car­ry­ing dif­fer­ent sen­sors or pieces of a deliv­er­able pack­age, they could achieve more than by fly­ing indi­vid­u­al­ly.

Liu and his team have already received a patent for the motion syn­chro­niza­tion, and were recent­ly hon­oured among of U of T’s “Inven­tors of the Year”. Liu and for­mer grad­u­ate stu­dents Mingfeng Zhang (AeroE PhD 1T3), Hen­ry Zhu (AeroE PhD 1T4) and Everett Find­lay (AeroE MASc 1T1) have cre­at­ed a spin­off com­pa­ny, Arrowon­ics Tech­nolo­gies Ltd., to com­mer­cial­ize the tech­nol­o­gy.

“With its empha­sis on prepar­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents for careers in indus­try, gov­ern­ment and acad­e­mia, the CREATE pro­gram is of tremen­dous ben­e­fit to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to Insti­tute for Aero­space Stud­ies and the Cana­di­an aca­d­e­m­ic research com­mu­ni­ty,” said David Zingg, direc­tor of UTIAS. “It facil­i­tates fun­da­men­tal, long-term research while at the same time enabling the uni­ver­si­ties to edu­cate grad­u­ates who will be ide­al­ly placed to bring such cut­ting-edge research to fruition.”

Oth­er pos­si­ble appli­ca­tions of UAVs include scout­ing for min­er­al deposits or oth­er nat­ur­al resources, mon­i­tor­ing pipelines or rail­ways for dam­age, check­ing up on crops, apply­ing fer­til­iz­ers and much more.

“Thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of tech­nol­o­gy, tim­ing and demand, I think we’re see­ing the begin­ning of a gold­en age in the devel­op­ment of UAVs,” said Liu. “As users in com­mer­cial and con­sumer appli­ca­tions start to see the poten­tial of drones, they will need engi­neers who are deeply famil­iar with the tech­nol­o­gy. This is what this grant will allow us to cre­ate.”


For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

RJ Tay­lor | Com­mu­ni­ca­tions & Media Rela­tions Strate­gist
Fac­ul­ty of Applied Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing | Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel 647–228-4358