The drone days of summer

Raytheon sponsors UAS-SAR course at MIT's Beaver Works

Beaver Works team in competition.

Surrounded by safety netting in the MIT hanger, a student team launches a drone equipped with a custom-built synthetic aperture radar. The team built the drone to scan an object and collect data as a part of the UAS-SAR course at MIT's Beaver Works Summer Institute.  

On first glance, it was just a tarp covering a lumpy bunch of soda cans on the floor. Nothing noteworthy — except the small drone carrying the custom-built radar, buzzing around the room.

The drone swept back and forth, the radar peering through the tarp to relay an image to a nearby computer. Then the screen revealed that the cans spelled out a message: M-I-T.  

For the young students behind the drones, it was the culmination of MIT’s Beaver Works Summer Institute, an immersive STEM camp at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their mission: build an unmanned airborne system with a synthetic aperture radar in four weeks in their Unmanned Air System - Synthetic Aperture Radar, or UAS-SAR, course, which was sponsored by Raytheon.

"We produced a very clear image of the letters M-I-T,” said Hannah Liu, age 17, from Newton, Massachusetts in an email interview. “It was great knowing our logic made sense and our work amounted to a result.”

Liu, along with her teammates David Li, Mason Mitchell and Theo Bafrali, won an award for creating the clearest SAR image.

Before heading to Beaver Works, the students took an MIT online course to learn the fundamentals of UAS flight and radar. In the actual UAS-SAR course, one of eight offered at Beaver Works, they worked alongside mentors in small teams, building a radar that produced data and images of different objects from around campus.

“They struggled for more than a week with some challenging scientific concepts,” said Dr. Ramu Bhagavatula, course instructor and technical staff member at MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s Airborne Radar Systems and Techniques Group.

That made it even better when they succeeded, according to Bhagavatula. "We look for bright students who struggle and fail, but pick themselves up and keep going. That’s the quality we want in engineers,” he said.  

At a dinner held the last week of camp, Raytheon scientists working on advanced artificial intelligence and autonomous drone swarms spoke to the Beaver Works campers. Like the students, many of those scientists got their start in a classroom, where they tried and failed until they got it right.

“As a freshman in college, I had to take apart a lawnmower, learn to weld and do things with my hands that I’d never done before,” said Barbara Borgonovi, vice president of Integrated Communications Systems at Raytheon's Space and Airborne Systems business. “All that taught me to have courage to learn new things."

The company is establishing a pair of high school internships next summer at Raytheon BBN Technologies, down the road from MIT in Cambridge. The interns will work with some of the world’s brightest scientists and technologists on futuristic technologies.

As for this year's Beaver Works students, the lessons learned at MIT will stay with them long after they return home, they said.

“There’s no other program like this,” said Ethan Fang, 16, from Scarsdale, New York, also by email interview. “They are teaching things I never would have learned in a classroom. I am really gaining a different perspective of the world.”

Last Updated: 09/17/2018