NSF Grant Awarded to TAMU-CC Professors to Help Shape the Future of Drone Use

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Drones buzz through busy cities and towns, delivering goods, collecting information, and providing medical assistance to those in need. They navigate their environment, avoiding off-limits areas, and keep a safe distance from other drones and restricted areas. This is the vision that Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi professors Drs. Carlos Rubio-Medrano, Jose Baca, Tianxing Chu, and Pablo Rangel dreamed of a year ago and a technological marvel they are certain they will see in their lifetimes.

“In fall 2020, we organized a meeting to talk about our research experiences and interests. During this meeting, we pointed out that drones would soon be flying unregulated over the whole city. This represents a serious risk to people, properties, and pets,” said Rubio-Medrano, TAMU-CC Assistant Professor of Computer Science. “Since members of the team have experience on topics needed to address this issue, we suddenly connected all the dots and started discussing the idea of preparing a proposal soon.”

The resulting research proposal was submitted to the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering Minority-Serving Institutions Research Expansion Program and was awarded a grant for $486,455. Rubio-Medrano explained that the three-year grant would help his research team refine their research approaches and collect valuable preliminary data that will help them publish their findings and launch future proposals in geospatial, cyberphysical, autonomous systems, and cybersecurity fields.

“We are really excited about this opportunity, especially since this is the very first NSF grant we have been awarded, both as a team and individually, which is an outstanding achievement in our early careers as researchers and educators,” Rubio-Medrano said.  

The researchers’ proposal focused on an open-source framework called No-Fly-Zone, that will help regulate the flight paths of drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), providing safety, cybersecurity, and ensuring privacy. Not only will the products of this research be beneficial to federal, state, and local authorities as they regulate the use of UAVs, but they will be accessible to the public as well.

“Our research will allow common citizens, who may not have advanced computer or cybersecurity skills, to have an easy-to-use way to regulate drones from flying over the spaces they have an interest in, like homes, schools, sports stadiums, and festivals,” said Rubio-Medrano. “In general, people are mostly concerned with privacy, while the government focuses more on safety. We believe our approach can not only effectively conciliate both, but also contribute to gaining the public’s acceptance and trust into the adoption of new technologies.”

The grant proposal was created with assistance from the Island University Division of Research and Innovation (R&I). Rubio-Medrano and his fellow researchers also graduated from the Summer Grant Fellows Program provided by the division. The program includes workshops that teach researchers how best to draft and revise research proposals.

“We were lucky to have the support and advice from R&I throughout the whole process. For instance, they helped us define and justify a budget that included all the materials, salaries, and student support needed to increase the chances of our project to be successful,” said Rubio-Medrano.

According to Dr. Ahmed Mahdy, TAMU-CC Vice President for Research and Innovation, it is reaffirming to continue seeing the work of Islander faculty and researchers sponsored by federal agencies like the NSF.

“It is not only a testament to the growth and national reputation of the Island University but also the success of our strategic investment in programs like the Summer Grant Fellows Program,” said Mahdy. “The impact of this project goes well beyond TAMU-CC and our region. It will advance this emerging technology on national and international levels.”

Rubio-Medrano additionally credits the interdisciplinary research team, with expertise in cybersecurity, electrical engineering, and geospatial computer science, with their NSF success.

“We have a synergistic team with diverse talent and complementary expertise to effectively address the different aspect of the work proposed,” he said.

The success of this proposal isn’t just a win for the researchers; research such as this helps position the university – an R2 research institution – as a leader in emerging research topics such as geospatial technologies, cybersecurity, and UAVs. In addition, the researchers plan to use this project as a launchpad for underrepresented groups, including women and Latinx students, with end goal of building a stronger and diverse workforce pipeline.

“We expect this grant to support at least two Ph.D. students for several years,” Rubio-Medrano said. “We have also outlined a plan to incorporate topics featured in this proposal into undergraduate and graduate classes and hope to prepare the next generation of geospatial scientists.”