Mechanic Turns Drone Hobby into Dynamic Career in UAV Research & Development

Jun 4, 2019 12:03:53 PM  |  0 Comments

It was 2010. Ian Joyce was working full-time as an auto mechanic during the day and building fixed-wing drones from scratch in his free time. Out of his garage, he modified ready-to-fly aircraft with wireless security system video transmitters, mini CCTV board cameras, among other off-the-shelf parts, and was even able to build a drone capable of flying thousands of feet high and maintaining control over 10 miles away.

Bixler Fixed Wing DroneOne of the fixed-wing drones Ian built as a hobbyist.

Of course, this was back in the day when hobbyists ruled the drone world, and the FAA had yet to establish a set of rules and regulations for unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs). There was no ban on flying BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) or flying above 400 feet, and the majority of drones in the sky were being operated by tinkerers and hobbyists. Then in 2013, multirotor drones came into the forefront and drones became mainstream. In 2016, the FAA published Part 107 regulations, opening the door for the use of drones in commercial operations.  

During that time in 2014, Ian met a Syracuse University professor, Dr. Serhend Arvas, on an RC internet forum. Impressed by Ian’s knowledge, he invited Ian to a seminar at the Center for Advanced Systems and Engineering (CASE) at Syracuse University. It was there that Ian met Laura Welch, who offered Ian a job at a biology lab on campus where they were designing and 3D printing their own lab equipment. So, while maintaining his day job as a mechanic, Ian assisted in the biology lab until they opened a new lab at CASE that was focused on prototype development, robotics, and drones. Naturally, Ian quit his mechanic job for good to run the Prototype Development Lab at Syracuse University. And thus his official career in sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) research and development (R&D) began.

Crash Test Drone Project4
The setup for a crash test drone project.

“Ian was able to have a conversation with me regarding the antennas he used at the level of a PhD student! I had no choice but to be impressed. Laura was able to recognize the fire in him and set things in motion. I am still, to this day, impressed by Ian’s professionalism and interest in his work,” Dr. Serhend Arvas, former Adjunct Professor at Syracuse, currently Director of R&D at Enarge Engineering. 

Ian’s role at Syracuse was to take the big ideas and theories from professors and bring them to life by first building custom drones to fit the purpose, and then physically flying the drone according to specifications. Ian would design, fabricate, and then pilot the system for their research.

Although he worked on many memorable projects at the lab, his most challenging was what he calls Precision Landing. Essentially, he was tasked with developing a system that could land a drone safely, precisely, and autonomously on a moving vehicle. This project forced him to become an expert in many different areas, including configuration of sensors, open-source flight controllers, and software.

“The project worked out well and is something that will continue to be expanded on,” Ian says. “It was exciting, and I’m going to continue the project on my own time.”

One of Ian’s favorite projects, however, was for Earth Sciences. The purpose was to see how incoming streams and rivers affect larger bodies of water. Originally, the university purchased an eBee to fly for the project, but the winds next to the water were too strong, so Ian had to improvise. He took the camera, which was perfect for capturing NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) orthomosaics out of the eBee and retrofitted it to another drone to successfully complete the project.

eBee Flight
Launching the eBee.

Water Sampling Drone2A water sampling drone Ian built in the lab.

“It was a lot of flying and trial and error,” Ian recalls. “But the landscapes were beautiful, and it was exciting to see the sediments so clearly from the air; it demonstrated how much potential drones have to be useful in a variety of industries.”

Today, Ian is working for Measure on one of the most significant R&D projects in the industry. He is Measure’s man on the job at the New York UAS Test Site in Rome, NY, which includes a 50-mile BVLOS corridor being developed by NUAIR and Oneida County and has been certified as a NUAIR Pilot and Mission Commander. Over the next several months, he will be running operational tests with select UTM Service Suppliers to help NUAIR and its partners demonstrate what an Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) ecosystem would look like and how it would operate. The second annual New York UAS Symposium is scheduled for September where the team will be showcasing a capstone demonstration to UAS industry leaders from around the globe.

But Ian says what brought him to this job was more than the opportunity to work on industry-changing research and development.

“What drew me in was seeing what Measure is doing as a whole,” Ian says. “Measure is using drones in a lot of areas, which isn’t something I see many companies doing. Measure has also taken input from pilots to create a user-friendly and intuitive software and is doing their own research and development. Measure does it all under one roof!”   

As for those ten years he spent as an auto mechanic, those skills are still being used to tinker on his late grandfather’s 1969 Jaguar XKE Convertible.

Ian Joyce is Measure's Pilot on the job at NUAIR's test site.

To keep up with Ian and the NUAIR project, follow Measure on LinkedIn and Twitter or subscribe to updates at the bottom of this page. If you’re interested in attending or sponsoring the New York UAS Symposium, hosted by NUAIR, find more information here.

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