Senior Design Stories: Monitoring Tree Health by Drone

Senior Design Team 14 partnered with sponsor The Morton Arboretum in the 2020 Senior Design Program to devise a way to more efficiently monitor the health of the trees in the 1,700-acre tree museum and research center located in Lisle, Illinois. Early detection and treatment of pests and diseases can save the lives of infected trees. The team worked to get to the “root” of the problem of the lengthy, labor-intensive job. “Right now staff drives a boom truck out to the trees,” said team member John Byrnes. “It takes a few hours. This will be much more efficient.”

Their challenge was to build a universal sensor mount (USM) that can be affixed to tree branches by a drone that can hover over the tree canopy. The USM uses cameras and sensors to send reports on the tree’s health to arboretum staff. Using a Gantt chart to track their progress, they worked on three prototype designs, of which they ultimately chose one to build.

In addition to the USM, the final product has two additional parts, the drone itself and an extension pole that deploys the USM to the branches. The USM had to meet specific requirements set by the arboretum, such as weighing less than 3 lbs., weather-ready, resistant to animal tampering, and operate at a frequency that is not being used by the arboretum staff. It also needed to stay in the tree without damaging the tree limbs.

If successful, the team’s design could be patentable and could “branch out” to have wide-reaching benefits to municipalities, forest preserves, park districts and other organizations that need to monitor the health of their trees.

Byrnes and his teammates Peyton Brudi and Paul Wohler, with the guidance of their Teaching Assistant (TA) Sandhya Chapagain and Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Sachit Butail, Ph.D., worked on the project in the 2019-2020 academic year, meeting weekly to report on their progress. Field visits to the arboretum occured every 3-4 weeks.

Senior Design is a year-long process where the engineering students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and work as a team to solve real-world problems for their capstone projects. They work for two semesters and in the spring will display their projects at the Senior Design Day, which would typically occur at the NIU Convocation Center. In light of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the event was held virtually on Friday, May 8 at go.niu.edu/seniordesignday.

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