EECS researchers on drone radars and on the cutting edge of creating an anti-collision system for commercial drones

This article was originally posted at University Daily Kansan by Travis Diesing | @travis_diesing

Imagine you’re on a rich friend’s private jet heading to Ft. Lauderdale for Spring Break. In the air, you gaze out the window. A small object begins to come into focus on the horizon, progressively getting larger. You eventually make out what appears to be a miniature aircraft. Instead of maneuvering out of the way, it slams into the propeller of your jet. Your gut tightens and the blood drains from your face as the plane propeller ignites, sending your aircraft plummeting into a downward spiral.

This is the nightmare scenario that Lei Shi, a University graduate student in electrical engineering, is working to prevent. Shi, 32, is one of the University’s rising researchers on drone radars and on the cutting edge of creating an anti-collision system for commercial drones. He’s also a new entrepreneur and a mentor to high school students interested in engineering.

Shi’s own interest in science and engineering started when he competed in Science Olympiad in high school constructing balsa wood bridges and Rube Goldberg machines. He went on to earn a degree in electrical engineering from the University and then spent three years working on miniature prototype circuits at the Honeywell plant in Kansas City.

But Shi wanted more control over the products he was developing and decided to return to the University for graduate school. Now, four years later, he’s even running his own business.

it’s so rewarding I got to do it,” Shi said. “I have to do it.”

In October, Shi became the sole owner and proprietor of UAV radars, a company he started to develop and market collision avoidance systems for commercial drones.

The idea was sparked in 2011 when Shi took a graduate level class that worked on using collision avoidance systems from the automobile industry in UAVs, an acronym for unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone. Shi and his colleagues realized the commercial drone industry needs ways to prevent the drones from crashing into other aircraft to get off the ground.

“Our fear is that someday a drone or a UAV is going to collide with a small general aviation aircraft and bring it down and it’s going to cost lives and it’s going to probably set back the UAV industry,” said Chris Allen, a professor in the University’s engineering department. “What we’re trying to do is anticipate the need for that before something catastrophic happens.”

Allen, whom Shi described as his mentor, said it’s Shi’s incredible energy and enthusiasm that makes him fit to lead the company.

When Shi is not in the lab or giving a business pitch, he hits the gym or works on art projects. In the summers, he gets the opportunity to give back what he’s learned by teaching at the University’s annual week-long summer engineering camp for high school students.

“We actually, in that one week period, cover at a very high level all of the basics of electrical engineering,” he said. “We squeeze all of it into one week. It’s a lot of work, but at the end all the students feel a sense of accomplishment, and so that’s really nice.”

Shi said the next step for him and the company is to enter the beta testing phase to improve the design to get it as close to perfect as possible. He said he already has a provisional patent on the design and recently applied for grants through NASA and the Navy that, if approved, will total nearly $1.75 million. His goal is to build the company and sell it to a larger company such as Boeing or Amazon.

“That’s sort of the ultimate goal for UAV Radars” Shi said. “And then after that who knows, maybe I’ll start another one.”