Cal Poly seeks funds for unmanned aircraft

After 75-year-old George Carpenter of San Luis Obispo went missing earlier this year, search crews conducted a three-day expedition in the rugged terrain of Big Sur where they had found his truck and dog. But they never found Carpenter.

Cal Poly and the sheriff’s search and rescue team are joining forces to make finding missing people easier by using advanced technology.

The university has sought state funding to build two remote-controlled aircraft outfitted with computer systems that would help search and rescue personnel by conducting flight missions.

Cal Poly submitted a grant proposal to the state’s Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division for $112,211; the university plans to kick in an additional $73,251.

The division is expected to decide on the recipient of the grant award in June, said Lynne Slivovsky, a Cal Poly electrical engineering professor leading the project.

“It’s an amazing project for students because it gives them a real-world application,” Slivovsky said. “I do think students can tackle it, and they’ll be motivated.”

Faculty project coordinators hope to use the funding to equip the aircraft with video and GPS technology.

The drones would monitor the terrain below by relaying camera images to a base station, use infrared sensors to track body heat and collect data for analysis when the unmanned vehicles land.

The flight operations could be conducted during the day or at night when people on search and rescue teams typically break from their missions.

Northrop Grumman donated a $200,000 helicopter to Cal Poly with a 10-foot rotor span and a 75-pound cargo capacity. The bulk of the grant money would go toward designing and installing the technology used to operate the chopper, Slivovsky said.

But Cal Poly also seeks $20,000 as part of its proposal to build a smaller fixed-wing plane from scratch with advanced technology that would conduct similar missions.

The all-volunteer, 58-member search and rescue team, overseen by the Sheriff’s Department’s Sgt. Mark Maki, has special training in conducting searches.

Each year, the team is called upon to locate dozens of people, including lost hikers and people with Alzheimer’s who wander off. Carpenter was showing symptoms of dementia when he disappeared Dec. 23.

“The aircrafts especially would help get us into the narrow canyons that piloted choppers can’t get to, as well as finding people where we can’t see through the thick brush from above,” said Jon “Woody” Words-worth, the chairman of the search and rescue team.

Wordsworth said the unmanned aircraft could potentially be used for any of the search team’s rescue missions.

The drones also could even be equipped to deliver supplies to people trapped in isolated areas, including food, water and a radio, Slivovsky said.

Drones can be as small as a roll of quarters — to navigate the inside of buildings — and as large as jumbo jets, which can make overseas deliveries of cargo.

Drones also have been used effectively in military bombing and surveillance missions to avoid risking the life of a human pilot.

About two dozen students from a variety of Cal Poly’s technical disciplines, as well as faculty, are ready to start work on the search and rescue project.

Cal Poly students with significant experience flying remote-control aircrafts will pilot the search aircraft from the ground, Slivovsky said.

Slivovsky envisions students being able to assist in missions for years to come.

“After our local project is under way, I think we could potentially help with searches in places like Yosemite and around the state if we’re asked to help,” Slivovsky said.