MAGICC Lab continues cutting-edge autonomous vehicle research

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Dani Jardine
From left: Grad students James Jackson and Parker Lusk showcase UAV devices used in the MAGICC Lab. (Danielle Jardine)

The BYU Multiple Agent Intelligent Coordination and Control (MAGICC) Lab continues to produce industry-leading research as graduate and doctorate students work alongside companies like NASA, Facebook and Boeing.

BYU electrical and computer engineering professor Randal Beard and mechanical engineering professor Tim McLain founded the MAGICC Lab in 1999. The professors had a passion for both flying and robotics and translated this interest into early drone research.

“We have very similar backgrounds and started working on projects together,” Beard said. “Our initial work was concerned with autonomous vehicles and robots and dynamics and controls. UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) were a natural way to go.”

Beard and McLain’s early research earned them grants from the United States Air Force and led to their founding of Procerus Technologies, a company specializing in developing and producing avionics and payload technologies, which Lockheed Martin bought in 2012. The two professors have found great success in the field of unmanned aircraft systems, but they recognize the field has changed over the past few decades.

“Right now we take it for granted,” Beard said. “Everyone has a drone. But back when we started, that wasn’t the case. Not very many people were working in this area.”

With the industry continuing to advance and evolve, Beard and McLain now oversee the MAGICC Lab and work alongside masters and doctorate students to adapt and develop new technologies.

The MAGICC Lab has two main emphases to which students and professors dedicate their time and research. The first is known as GPS-denied navigation.

“We are trying to fly indoors and in environments where GPS is not available,” Beard said. “GPS helps because it gives you position, but when you fly that vehicle, you use that information to correct everything that could go wrong. To do that without a pilot or GPS, you need external sensors and algorithms to keep your vehicle in the air.”

James Jackson, a BYU student pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering, specializes in GPS-denied navigation and recognizes the market for this technology is huge.

“Applications for industrial drones requires the ability to work close to obstacles like mapping the inside of a warehouse or inspecting the outside of a bridge,” Jackson said. “It’s a growing market and capturing even 10 percent of it would represent billions of dollars.”

The lab’s second emphasis is autonomous tracking. External sensors, drones and fixed wing aircraft are able to track the movement of targets, people, cars, animals and other objects on the ground.

“This type of research has incredible applications,” said graduate student Parker Lusk. “With robust tracking, unmanned vehicles are able to pick up objects on the ground and then use probability densities to determine the safest place to land.”

Lusk develops unmanned air systems with Beard. Lusk’s research will be used in emergency landing procedures for unmanned vehicles, and he plans to present his findings to NASA at the Langley Research Center later this year.

The MAGICC Lab continually produces new research and is operated by a team of over 20 students. The lab intends to present its current research to industrial sponsors in August.

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