Healthy Planet Student Research

Star Pilot

Student flies drones for research

By Nick Houtman

In 2016, Ben Lester, an Oregon State undergraduate from Portland, became one of the first drone pilots certified by the Federal Aviation Administration in the state. On a sunny summer morning at Jerry Trimble Helicopters in McMinnville, he passed what is known as the Part 107 Remote Pilot Exam.

Since then, the junior in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science has trained OSU students and faculty researchers to comply with federal regulations. He has provided advice on technology and flown drones to gather data on structures, forests and farm fields. For next summer, he is considering several projects, including a study of gray whales off the coast of British Columbia by Complier Enterprise, a Corvallis-based startup company.

Lester’s interest in drones, aka unmanned aerial systems (UAS), grew from a teenage fascination with hobby planes. “I started building and flying planes when I was in middle school, but I got bored with just flying them,” he says.

Then he saw a friend put a camera on a drone and fly it over mountainous terrain. “I knew I wanted to do that,” he adds.

Ben Lester is building this drone for a powerline inspection project with Bonneville Power. (Photo: Jen Pywell)

Lester was attending Clark College in Vancouver, Washington, when he met Mark Peters at a UAS industry conference. As OSU’s interim director of research integrity, Peters makes sure researchers comply with state and federal laws. “This student came up to me and said he was transferring to OSU. He asked if there were any opportunities for him to work on UAS at Oregon State,” says Peters.

As an intern in the Research Office, Lester built drones and dove into the quickly evolving laws regulating their use. To demonstrate the potential for sensor-equipped planes to monitor and inspect structures with precision, he mapped Reser Stadium. “It was so accurate that we could even see the curved surface of the football field,” he says.

Former OSU engineering assistant professor Dan Gillins asked Lester to build a fixed-wing drone for a project funded by the Bonneville Power Administration. The goal, says Lester, is to lower the cost of powerline inspections, which are now done by truck or helicopter. Equipped with four different cameras, Lester’s drone will be able to fly for 90 minutes and cover more than 10 miles before refueling.

However, with all their potential, drones are a means to an end for Lester. “I want to do things that significantly impact people’s lives in a positive way,” he says. “More than half the population of the world doesn’t have the same standard of living that we do, and there’s a lot we can do to change that.”

For example, drones can help produce more food through automated agriculture, he says.

To achieve their potential, Lester is focusing more on sensors and data analysis than on flying hardware. “Data is the next barrier,” he says. “We are collecting huge amounts of data. What are we doing with it? If you have hours of powerline footage, where do you choose to look?”

Through his research and outreach, Lester shows the potential of the Student Success Initiative announced last February by OSU President Ed Ray. This summer, June 26-29, Oregon K-12 teachers and industry representatives will see the benefit as well. Lester is organizing drone week at OSU.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.