The drones are coming! Showcase highlights use of unmanned vehicles to map critical watersheds

OSU students showcased their use of unmanned aerial vehicles and boats to map Oklahoma lakes

By Jim Stafford

Early morning anglers casting into Grand Lake’s Horseshoe Cove this past summer might have done a double-take if they spotted a lime-green kayak plowing across the water with no human pilot aboard.

What they were witnessing was MANUEL, a creation of Oklahoma State University engineering graduate student Muwanika Jdiobe.

MANUEL – an acronym for Mobile Autonomously Navigable USV for Evaluation of Lakes – was created by Jdiobe as a project for OSU’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute (USRI).

Jdiobe recently made a virtual presentation about MANUEL and what his research at Horseshoe Cove uncovered at the Oklahoma City Innovation District’s Student Showcase on Unmanned Systems.

The showcase was the third in a series of student showcases presented by the Innovation District in conjunction with OSU’s USRI.

“Our vision is to get the best minds in the same room to meet, share research, information and ultimately, drive innovation in Oklahoma and around the country,” said Austin Bowles, the Innovation District’s digital marketing director.

Jdiobe was one of two OSU students affiliated with USRI who described projects that measured water depth and quality or mapped invasive vegetation on a lake that provides critical drinking water.

Before it was deployed on its Grand Lake mission, MANUEL was outfitted with an electric motor that provided propulsion, along with GPS equipment that allowed precise autonomous navigation, along with sensors that collected information on water quality and depth.

“The whole time I was sitting on the shore just observing her execute her mission,” Jdiobe said. “After every mission, MANUEL has to return to the point at which she was launched so we can extract all the data that was collected.”

The project was conducted in coordination with OSU environmental scientists who sought data about the lake and how pollution was impacting its depth and water quality. The goal is to better understand and prevent harmful algal blooms caused by agricultural runoff. One such bloom shut down Grand Lake on July 4, 2011, its busiest day of the year.

“MANUEL can reach very difficult places that other technologies cannot reach,” Jdiobe said. “We came to learn that MANUEL can actually work in very harsh conditions, even when we have strong winds and heavy rainfalls.”

The second presentation at the Student Showcase involved the mapping of Stillwater’s Lake Carl Blackwell on behalf of OSU and the City of Stillwater.

OSU mechanical and aerospace engineering graduate student Andrew Cole described how two unmanned aerial vehicles – drones – were used to map the lake and assess the growth of unwanted vegetation.

“The problem we applied this to was Floating Yellow Heart, which is an invasive species that was found in Lake Carl Blackwell, the main water source for the OSU campus and parts of Stillwater,” Cole said. “It is a lily pad that grows in such dense mass that it blocks out the sunlight and chokes out natural plants.”

The project involved outfitting two drones with cameras – some of them multispectral which filters certain light waves – to make high-resolution photos of the lake.

Using what is known as photogrammetry software that stiches the photos together to make a composite photo, scientists were able to assess the exact locations of the Floating Yellow Heart and apply herbicide to kill it.

The path the drones followed was plotted beforehand, so the unmanned aerial vehicles flew a precise route.

“With this automation method, we can actually fly the lake by one person in about two hours, or two people in one hour because you have two vehicles in the air,” Cole said. “Using unmanned aerial systems is a cheap and efficient way to get data that a lot of times you can’t get any other way.”

Added Victoria Natalie, program manager at OSU’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute: “With drones coming into their own as a research tool, we’ve really been able to expand different ways of getting information across, collecting data and furthering research.”

Natalie is leading USRI’s expansion in the Oklahoma City Discovery facility, recently donated to OSU, which will enable closer connections between OSU and the Oklahoma City Innovation District.

The Student Showcase presentation, along with previous showcases, can be viewed at the Oklahoma City Innovation District website,

Jim Stafford writes about Oklahoma innovation and research and development topics on behalf of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST).

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I'm an Oklahoma City-based freelance writer with interests in Oklahoma startup community, Apple Inc, OKC Thunder & Texas Rangers.

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