Student tests flying drone

The Flying Swarms team, which includes Alex Witt ’23, DJ Ammirato ’23, Karen Li ’24 and Michael Fitzgerald ’23, aims to eventually create a low-cost autonomous aerial platform with recycled components that can make a social impact.

Mountaintop Summer Experience Wraps Up 10th Year

A total of 180 students and 25 faculty members spent approximately 10 weeks at Mountaintop’s Building C working on 36 different projects.

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

Picture this: A hurricane rages in a remote part of the world, with winds possibly exceeding 150 miles per hour and rainfall sometimes totaling more than a foot. With limited road access, hospitals can’t get needed medical supplies. Traditional drones aren’t performing well in the severe weather.

The possibility of such a scenario prompted a group of students in Lehigh’s Mountaintop Summer Experience to spend this summer figuring out whether a swarm of flying blimps could be used to transport supplies in less than ideal weather conditions.

The project, Flying Swarms: Designing, Constructing, and Programming Autonomous Robotic Blimps, is one of 36 “distinct, innovation-driven” projects in the 10-week initiative, which included 180 students and 25 faculty members. Of those 36 projects, 18 are part of a Creative Inquiry Impact Fellowship program. Now in its 10th year, the Mountaintop Summer Experience has grown dramatically since its inception and, spurred by the creation of the Office of Creative Inquiry, began transitioning the summer projects into year-round ventures that accelerate in the summer six years ago.

“The summer at Mountaintop is one phase in a longer life-cycle of these projects that will all continue into the Fall semester and beyond,” Bill Whitney, administrative director for the Office of Creative Inquiry, said. “After this accelerated time, the teams may shift but the projects will continue to spin out innovative and impactful outcomes.”

Flying Swarms Team working on their aerial vehicle

The Flying Swarms team began with an open source multi-rotor aerial vehicle and moved to a tilted-rotor style that offered additional benefits when adding a blimp.

This summer, projects at Mountaintop’s Building C tackled a wide range of issues, including research integrity in Kazakhstan, autism in Sierra Leone and hunger and food supply challenges in parts of the Philippines. Some projects focused on issues closer to home—one team worked on utilizing Amazon’s Alexa system to answer frequently asked questions on Lehigh’s campus and another focused on decontaminating Lehigh’s recycling stream. One project is using the arts to understand the connection between thought, empathy and scientific reasoning.

"The Mountaintop Summer Experience is always a remarkable time at Lehigh,” Khanjan Mehta, vice provost for Creative Inquiry and director of the Mountaintop Initiative, said. “This year, 36 project teams worked side-by-side, their goals ranging from health care diagnostics in low-resource countries to cutting-edge financial engineering, and created a community of purpose-driven researchers, innovators, and creative problem-solvers. I am always amazed and encouraged by what the students, faculty, and external partners who comprise the Mountaintop teams are able to create by working together, playing by strengths, and focusing on the purpose and potential of these ambitious projects."

At the end of July, the Office of Creative Inquiry hosted its Mountaintop Summer Experience press conferences, allotting students approximately seven minutes to publicly present their projects, with an additional 15 minutes to answer questions and receive feedback from attendees. Presentations were divided into six themed groups: education, behavior, community, financial, technology and health.

The Flying Swarms team, in the first year of its project, aims to compete in a flying robot competition at the University of Indiana that will pose four primary challenges: autonomous flight, interacting with its environment, object detection and determining its location. Teams will compete by passing balloons through different shaped obstacles around the venue. With the helium-filled envelope attached, each vehicle is required to be “lighter than air,” meaning it weighs less than 100 grams.

To tackle the autonomous flight, the team, comprised of Alex Witt ’23, DJ Ammirato ’23, Karen Li ’24 and Michael Fitzgerald ’23, began with an open source multi-rotor aerial vehicle and moved to a tilted-rotor style that offered additional benefits when adding a blimp. David Saldaña, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, is their faculty mentor.

Students working on Autonomous Driving for Underwater Drones project vehicle

Autonomous Driving for Underwater Drones began through last year’s Mountaintop Summer Experience and has continued with 14 students currently dedicated to the project.

“The blimp provides more stability and provides a longer fight time because our motors have to spend less energy actually keeping the device in the air,” Ammirato said.

Flying Swarms has also been working to develop coordinate positions for the drone, not only so it can be tracked, but also so the vehicle can understand its surroundings and improve its memory and familiarity with its surroundings. The team used LiDAR, which is essentially lasers, to gather information about the distance to different objects. They also needed to use a particle filter to help interpret the data they gathered.

The team said they are in the process of getting the device’s individual components to work by themselves.

Eventually, the team plans to create a low-cost autonomous aerial platform with recycled components, such as balloons and cell phones, that can make a social impact. They envision introducing them as swarms of robots and intend to partner with a global sustainable development organization.

Another project in its early stages also works with drones, but in a different medium. Autonomous Driving for Underwater Drones began through last year’s Mountaintop Summer Experience and has continued with 14 currently dedicated to the project with their faculty mentor Rosa Zheng, professor of electrical and computer engineering. The team consists of Logan Kramer ’23, Weihang Guo ’23, Junchen Bao ’24, Olivia Reed ’24, Lily Swider ’25, Fengyi Sun ’23, Daniel O'Keeffe ’23, Junan Mei ’24, Sophia Martino ’24, Andrew Langenau ’25, Hanqing Qi ’25, Nathaniel Todd-Long ’22, Heling Wang ’23G, and Heidrun Cobb ’25.

Students testing Autonomous Driving for Underwater Drones vehicle

Students used Morrissey Pool to test their underwater drone vehicle.

They worked on developing a drone to participate in the 25th RoboSub Competition, which wrapped up in early August.

The competition, an international student competition featuring autonomous underwater vehicles designed and built to mimic real-world systems, was hosted by the University of Maryland. The Lehigh team, earning a Blue Robotics Special Award, was one of 39, which competed both in-person and virtually, representing 14 different countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Norway, Russia and Turkey.

The students working on the Underwater Drones project have split themselves into three main teams: the mechanical team, which is designing and 3D printing their own parts at Wilbur Powerhouse; the electrical team, which is designing the electronics structures that connect each component, including the thrusters, on-board computer and flight controller; and the software team, which codes the drone to be able to see and identify objects underwater in the pool. Most of the software team’s research is in image recognition. After seeing objects, the drone has to map and move based off the images it sees.

In the current stage, the drone recognizes a specific set of images and tasks, but a future goal is to have the drone complete more unexpected tasks.

“We have a lot of plans for next steps,” Swider said. “This year was really about learning and getting a jumping off point to develop further.”

Story by

Stephen Gross

Photography by

Christa Neu

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