New course takes flight at Jacobs Hall

This fall, passersby on the top floor of Jacobs Hall might have seen an unusual sight: a large net dropped down from the ceiling, with a mini-drone buzzing around inside it. This would be a class session of Introduction to Control of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (ME 136), a new course held in Jacobs Hall this semester. Designed and taught by mechanical engineering professor Mark Mueller, the course aims to offer undergraduate students a chance to delve into research on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)— and to apply this learning in work with a real system.

For Mueller, this integrated study and application of core concepts lies at the heart of the course’s appeal. “Because we focus on UAVs,” he explains, “we get to highlight why certain ideas are important, using a system that we develop throughout the semester.” Over the course of the semester, lectures covered topics from the kinematics and dynamics of rotations to typical control strategies, with students applying these topics in accompanying labs that built up to creating a controller for a quadcopter UAV.

Mueller’s research interests include robotics and UAV control, and he’s excited about the interplay between this research and students’ interests in the rapidly growing UAV field, which has potential for impact in areas from emergency services to wildlife conservation. “That’s something we want to tap into — this excitement among the undergrads,” says Mueller. This fall’s course participants included several members of the student group UAVs @ Berkeley, which serves as a resource hub for students interested in UAVs and leads activities like a DeCal and fly days. While the majority of students in the course were mechanical engineering students, participants’ majors also included civil engineering, nuclear engineering, and physics, pointing toward interdisciplinary collaboration. Mueller hopes that the course experience will help build on this energy, prompting students to pursue further research opportunities on campus and beyond.

As the fall semester progressed, students moved from early labs focused on elements like modeling and sensor usage into activities like experimenting with destabilizing their team’s mini-UAV, providing tangible experience with control design and stability effects. In the semester’s final weeks, they began flight experiments, using the mesh net that had been hung from the studio’s ceiling as a flight cage. “The space at Jacobs is ideal for this,” says Mueller. “It’s a big open space — you have tall ceilings, so students can actually fly and have enough space to move around.” These experiments culminated in a final competition that put students’ controllers to the test: bringing together all of the concepts the course had covered, teams guided their UAVs in the flight cage, competing for maximum hover length and attempting acrobatics. At the competition’s end, the winning team’s members each took home a sponsored prize: a DJI Spark mini-drone. The following week, several teams shared their work with a broad public audience at the Jacobs Winter Design Showcase — part of an ongoing conversation about this emerging technology that many students hope to continue to explore, from the lab to the flight test.

Get a glimpse of the course in the video below. Curious about upcoming classes at Jacobs Hall? Check out spring 2018 course listings.

Story by Laura Mitchell | Video by Junaid Maknojia