December 10, 2019
Photo credit: Luther Caverly

Hands-on Experience with UAVs Offer Graduate Students Internships with Industry Partners

Four students work on drones in the lab
Graduate students Brendan Ooi, Salman Shafi, Kimberly Bernyk and Riley Cormier work on UAVs in the lab at Carleton University.

Drones are our eyes in the sky, and they give us novel ways of understanding what’s happening on the ground. Drone-mounted sensors and cameras can help identify hot spots that can cause potential forest fires, inspect aging infrastructure, and identify the impact of climate change and extreme weather events. And they take a pretty decent picture too.

But drones are an emerging technology, and their full potential is far from being realized. Carleton is working with 12 industry partners to get graduate students hands-on, industry experience that will help them develop the next generation of drone applications.

In a collaboration funded through a $1.65M NSERC Collaborative Training and Research Experience Program (CREATE) grant, there will be 200 graduate student internships available through the Uninhabited Aircraft Systems Training, Innovation and Leadership Initiative (UTILI).

Students from five universities will be eligible to participate in the six-year program: Carleton, l’École de Technologie Supérieure, Queen’s University, University of Ottawa, and Université de Sherbrooke.

And the scope of the project isn’t limited to aerospace engineers.

“UTILI will bring together a multidisciplinary team of scholars that includes civil engineers, geographers, geophysicists, and computer systems engineers,” says Jeremy Laliberté, director of UTILI and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton.

Jeremy Laliberté stands leaning against a counter next to a UAV.
Jeremy Laliberté, Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and Director of Carleton Aerospace

“We want to look at all aspects of the systems and not just the aircraft itself. UTILI is focused on finding more effective ways to use drones to monitor critical infrastructure and the environment, and to protect communities from climate change.”

With their bird’s-eye view, drones are able to record information from a perspective that is difficult or impossible to obtain at ground level.

“In the north, we are exposed to a lot of extreme climate changes and extreme temperature changes,” says Jennifer Waugh, the founder of Aletium, a remote sensing services company based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.

“Northern infrastructure is particularly susceptible. We do structure monitoring – things like identifying embankment erosion before and after construction.”

A Carleton aerospace engineering graduate, Waugh was one of several industry representatives who pitched their company to students at the 1st Annual NSERC CREATE UTILI Partnership workshop on October 29.

“We’ve found that the surveying and mapping industry is really ready to save money and use new technology,” says Waugh.

“We provide topography and any other GPS mapping deliverables, as well as photography and videography. Like every business, we are continually looking to grow into different markets and identify needs. We’re looking forward to meeting all of these incredible students who have knowledge in these areas.”

Students will be able to work with smaller companies like Alietum, and large corporations like MDA – the space technology giant that developed the Canadarm, and is growing its capability in unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

“MDA solves aerospace and defense problems using made-in-Canada solutions,” says Andrew MacDonald, a research scientist with the company.

“Whether it’s RadarSat missions, Canadarm 2, or UAS systems deployed around the globe, we have a lot of experience working mission critical systems. We have 18 years on the International Space Station, 14 years on Mars, and tens of millions of kilometers of remote sensing data. The big data problem is not new to us, but it’s entering a whole different paradigm with the number of remotely piloted systems going up. We have over 1,900 employees in Canada, with earth observation and defense businesses in Vancouver, robotics in Brampton, and more than 100 staff working on various problems here in Ottawa. Some are embedded with government, and others are working with clients or academia.”

At the workshop, graduate students also pitched themselves to the companies. Some students have training in remote sensing, and are seeking to build their experience with drones. Others had have a background aerospace, and are seeking to build their knowledge of applications.

“Most of my skills are in lightweight structures and composite materials,” says Mila Kanevsky, a Carleton graduate who is currently pursuing her master’s of applied science in aerospace engineering degree.

“These are two very large topics in the aerospace field. Everyone wants aircraft to be lighter and more efficient. I plan for my thesis to be on those topics, but I’m also interested in the environment. They are both my passions, and I’ll be exploring how to tie the environment in to my work. It’s a growing industry. I’m excited to apply the skills that I already have, and also excited to gain new skills through the project.”

While research is an important part of NSERC CREATE UTILI, program director Laliberté emphasizes that its primary goal is preparing graduate students for the workforce.

“UTILI’s purpose isn’t only to develop technical skills,” Laliberté says, “but also professional skills like project management and communication.”

While the participating universities are clustered in eastern Ontario and western Quebec, there will be internship opportunities with companies across Canada that have a wide range of specializations – from surveying to military applications. One of UTILI’s aims is to give participating students exposure to the way that private sector operates in a way that can’t be replicated in a lab setting — or even in academic field work.

“For-profit companies have a different perspective,” says Laliberté.

“They need to think about the business side of things, as well as the technical and safety side. That’s really important for students who have limited work experience, or whose experience has been confined to an academic setting.”

For international students, UTILI offers the benefits are two-fold. Having Canadian work experience can be critical to finding employment in Canada after graduation.

“That can be a challenge for international graduate students, if they haven’t done a co-op, and didn’t do their undergraduate degree or high school here. This type of program is very beneficial for students who have come to Canada, and need a leg up to get into the workforce.”

 UTILI’s partners include Sumac Geomatics, Romaeris Corporation, Alietum Ltd., Global UAV Technologies, MDA/Maxar, ING Robotic Aviation, BC Air Guards, Robotics Centre, RC Benchmark/Tyto Robotics, Aethon Geomatics, Terranova Aerospace, Tristar Multicopters, CED Alma, University of Alaska – Fairbanks, Clarkson University and Natural Resources Canada.

Click here to learn about how to apply to UTILI.

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