In the lab: These drones are made for fishing, dam patrols and globe-trotting rescue missions

Arie Nakhmani, Ph.D., and Ali Darwish in the School of Engineering's Controls LabArie Nakhmani, Ph.D., and Ali Darwish in the School of Engineering’s Controls Lab

The fish that pulled Ali Darwish’s drone under water must have been a big one.

After all, his custom-built quadcopter — equipped with floats made from pink insulation foam he bought at Home Depot — had already lifted several fish out of Birmingham’s Oak Mountain Lake without any trouble.

The machine, and the bass, were unharmed. The drone is built to survive a complete dunking, with clever circuit placement and homemade coatings. Darwish, a Ph.D. candidate in the UAB Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, thinks his drone has a bright future in underwater research and surveying dams and pipelines. But as long as he was testing the machine on a lake, “I thought, I might as well add a hook!” Darwish said.

The fishing drone is just one of a whole fleet of robotic flying machines that Darwish is building in the School of Engineering’s Controls Lab. Working with his doctoral advisor, Arie Nakhmani, Ph.D., and a team at Stanford University, Darwish is also building a fixed-wing drone that can fly for hundreds of miles and carry a payload of several pounds. This one features insulation-foam wings, reinforced with used carbon-fiber golf clubs “that I picked up for a dollar apiece,” he said.

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