Gooch, computer science students collaborate on autonomous terrain project

Two undergraduate students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University recently collaborated on a project to develop an autonomous terrain mapping system for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agents.

This opportunity grew out of a project that Dr. Bruce Gooch, associate professor in the department, is currently working on. Dr. June Wolfe III, AgriLife Extension associate research scientist, asked Gooch if he would be interested in developing a system to perform autonomous terrain mapping using an unmanned aerial vehicle and LiDAR-based range finding sensors for his contacts at Fort Hood, who currently do not have any viable method for consistently mapping the training grounds.

Wolfe manages and directs the Water Science Laboratory at Texas A&M AgriLife Research’s Blackland Research and Extension Center in Temple, Texas. Gooch agreed to help and immediately proposed the project to students Seth Burchell and Nick Bain.

Burchell was excited by the novelty of the system and jumped at the chance to join the project. For his senior design project last year, Bain developed an autonomous UAV cellphone/Wi-Fi signal diagnostic system and was ecstatic to work on another UAV system.

“Fort Hood’s vehicular maneuver activities often disturb training area vegetation and soils,” Bain said. “This can lead to bare ground and ruts, which are susceptible to erosion during storm water runoff events.”

These runoff events cause the formation of small channels, which can eventually develop into large connected gully systems. Traditional mapping of these systems requires large amounts of labor and time. Because of this, Fort Hood’s gully system has only been mapped once.

However, since these systems change after each runoff event it is crucial they be mapped at regular intervals. These short time series maps would allow decision makers to assess the gully system conditions, the effectiveness of mitigation efforts and prioritize future applications of limited resources.

The ultimate goal of the project is to develop a low-cost system that can rapidly and efficiently map terrain. As stated in the project proposal, traditional and commercial methods simply aren’t viable for an area as large as Fort Hood. The researchers’ proposed method should overcome the size barrier, which would enable terrain mapping for large land masses – something that has previously been avoided due to the limitations of the currently available commercial methods.

“We’re excited to work on a project that will yield tangible results and a viable commercial product,” Bain said.  “In addition to this, we will be guided through the process of taking our system to market, which to be honest, neither of us have any experience doing. It will be a tremendous learning experience.”

Because of their work on this project, Burchell and Bain were recently accepted into the 2017 Summer Texas A&M iSITE cohort.