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Infrared Drone Takes Campus Energy Audits to Another Level

Mechanical Engineering Researchers Collaborate with Facilities Management

Students and faculty pilot the drone on North Campus Photo by Ed Brennen
Mechanical Engineering Asst. Prof. Alessandro Sabato, left, and his research team demonstrate the infrared drone on North Campus.

04/01/2021
By Ed Brennen

Something unusual was buzzing across the moonless night sky on North Campus recently.

A black, four-propeller drone — about the size of a trash can lid and equipped with a $13,000 infrared camera — was methodically circling 250 feet above every square foot of UML property, from the Saab ETIC to Cumnock Hall to the Costello Athletic Center.

From the roof of Southwick Hall, a small team of faculty and student researchers from the Department of Mechanical Engineering piloted the drone for its 45-minute flight. Their mission: to take the infrared images captured by the drone back to the lab, stitch them together digitally, and create a thermal map of North Campus showing where buildings and underground steam pipes are losing heat — and costing the university money.

The project, a collaboration between Facilities Management and the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy (RISE), is intended to help the university identify and prioritize cost-saving repairs and energy-efficiency projects on North and South campuses.

“It’s a very high-level — no pun intended — energy audit that gives us a broad view of any issues,” says Dan Abrahamson, the university’s energy manager.

A infrared image of the Southwick Hall roof taken by the drone
The drone's infrared camera captures thermal images, such as this one of the Southwick Hall roof. The star-shaped design on the roof is actually the team members on their backs posing for a photo.

In the past, Facilities hired a company to fly a plane over campus and collect such thermal images, “which is pretty costly,” Abrahamson says.

Knowing that faculty from the Francis College of Engineering were engaged in research projects that use drones to monitor the structural integrity of buildings, bridges and roads, Abrahamson contacted Mechanical Engineering Prof. and Department Chair Christopher Niezrecki, a RISE co-director, about applying the technology on campus.

Niezrecki brought in Mechanical Engineering Asst. Prof. Alessandro Sabato, a colleague from the Structural Dynamics and Acoustics Systems Laboratory (SDASL) who had recently purchased a drone and infrared camera for a research project with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to find voids beneath roadways that could lead to sinkholes.

“Building energy efficiency is a small piece of the puzzle to reduce carbon footprint and have a ‘greener’ built environment,” Sabato says. “So when Facilities reached out to our research group, we were thrilled for the opportunity to help UML build a more sustainable campus using the technologies we are developing in the SDASL.” 

Two of Sabato’s Ph.D. students, Nitin Kulkarni and Fabio Bottalico, joined the campus project along with Marco Angelosanti, a visiting scholar from Sapienza University of Rome.

“It could potentially be a game-changer in terms of doing energy audits on a large, rapid scale,” Niezrecki says.

The project only covered North and South campuses, Abrahamson says, because they both have central steam plants that heat most of the buildings via an underground steam loop (buildings on East Campus rely on their own boilers or furnaces). And the flights had to be conducted at night to avoid sunlight interfering with the sensor signal. 
Students and faculty watch the drone fly on North Campus Photo by Ed Brennen
Asst. Prof. Alessandro Sabato points to the drone as he takes it for a test flight with team members, from left, Fabio Bottalico, Marco Angelosanti and Nitin Kulkarni.

The drone’s flight path is pre-programmed, but it can still be maneuvered remotely. As the only member of the group with a drone pilot license from the Federal Aviation Administration, Kulkarni handled most of the flying.

“Now I know how to map the plans, do mission flights, collect the data and analyze it,” says Kulkarni, a native of India who joined UML in January, after earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Texas Tech University.

Bottalico, who recently completed master’s degrees from both New York University and the Polytechnic University of Bari in his native Italy, also began pursuing his Ph.D. at UML this semester.

“The technology involved in this is going to be part of my research, so I need to know what’s happening,” says Bottalico, who along with Kulkarni is part of Sabato’s MassDOT research project.

“This was the perfect way to show students that the tools they use can be beneficial to the whole community and are not just another equation on their dissertation," Sabato says.

As the team reviewed the preliminary North Campus scans, they noticed a bright red spot between Pinanski Hall and Costello that signaled a potential underground steam pipe leak. There was also noticeable heat loss coming from the east-facing side of the Olney Science Center.

“This could lead to some pretty great energy projects to tighten up our buildings,” says Abrahamson, who adds that the thermal images can also show overheating electrical equipment, such as generators, that need maintenance.
The team prepares to launch the drone in front of Saab ETIC Photo by Ed Brennen
Team members prepare to fly the drone from the concourse in front of the Saab ETIC on North Campus.

Once the thermal maps are complete, Facilities will add them to its interactive Campus Viewer platform.

“It will be good to have that data accessible for the future,” Abrahamson says.

Niezrecki, meanwhile, is hoping to take the project a step further by using the scans to create a more detailed 3-D rendering of a building — a process called photogrammetry that could be used in future research work.

“We’re looking to push the envelope of the technology beyond simple scans,” says Niezrecki, who recently forged a joint research project on energy resiliency with Stony Brook University that received $7.36 million in funding from the Office of Naval Research. 

“Our interest is getting results that we can leverage for work that supports our grant and complements the Navy project,” he says.