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The University of Southampton

Students to transform drone design in fight against climate change and poaching

Published: 13 December 2019
Ewan Kirk examining a UAV
Technology entrepreneur Ewan Kirk examines a UAV with a student.

The engineering department at the University of Southampton has launched a new student-led research programme to develop new unmanned aviation vehicles (UAVs) to fight back against climate change and poaching.

The launch of the new scheme follows a £15,000 donation from Southampton alumnus and technology entrepreneur Dr Ewan Kirk.

Up until now, monitoring, tracking and evaluating the impact of environmental degradation from climate change and natural disasters in remote, rural areas has been difficult and impractical.

While UAVs are currently used to collect important data from these remote regions, their practicality has been restricted by their efficiency and battery life, which significantly limits their reach. While longer-range UAVs exist, they are often too expensive to deploy on a larger, more widespread scale.

The new Turner-Kirk UAV Research Support Programme will fund three groups of fourth-year students within the engineering department. The student’s research will focus on ways to improve the efficiency and extend the battery life of drones, with a view to developing new ways to adapt existing drones on an inexpensive basis. The research will also focus on studying novel aircraft configurations designed to minimise the energy requirements.

The student team will also undertake a field trip to Guatemala next year to monitor a live volcano using the new technology in collaboration with the University of Bristol.

Ewan Kirk with students
Ewan Kirk with Prof Jim Scanlan (left) and Dr Mario Ferraro (centre)

Dr Ewan Kirk, Director of the Turner-Kirk Charitable Trust, said: "In the future, it is totally possible that remote and hostile environments worldwide will be constantly monitored by UAVs, feeding back live data to environmental agencies, so we can track our global ecosystem in real-time.

"The application of technology is vital to mitigating environmental changes and the conservation of endangered animals. Universities are hotbeds for ideas and innovation and have an important role to play in developing the technology needed."

Dr Mario Ferraro, Senior Enterprise Fellow in the engineering department at the University of Southampton, said: "I would like to thank Ewan Kirk and Patricia Turner for this generous gift which will enable the University of Southampton to continue this important and timely stream of research. As a team, one of the University’s main priorities is to develop technology that can be used by environment agencies worldwide to make a real difference in minimising the impact of climate change and natural disasters.

"Until now, there's simply not been enough research in this area, and as we all feel the effects of climate change, from widespread flooding to forest fires, the importance of this type of technology matters more than ever."

Dr Patricia Turner, Director of the Turner-Kirk Charitable Trust, said: "Conservation and environmental degradation is one of the most important and urgent challenges that we face. It is critically important that universities and researchers have the funds at their disposal to find new, creative technology solutions to these urgent problems.

"I am particularly excited about this research because of the way it engages younger undergraduate students. If we are to realise the potential of drones, it is essential to engage the next generation of research talent in UAV research."

Related Staff Member

Notes for editors

About the Turner-Kirk Charitable Trust:

  • Founded in 2007, the Turner-Kirk Charitable Trust supports STEM, education and conservation causes. Since founding, it has disbursed more than £7 million in funding.
  • It is one of the largest private funders of fundamental mathematics research in the UK, and funds the Kirk Distinguished Fellowship Programme for female mathematicians and the Turner-Kirk Visiting Fellowship Programme to bring leading mathematicians to Cambridge.
  • It was founded by technology entrepreneur Dr Ewan Kirk and philanthropist Dr Patricia Turner. Dr Kirk previously founded Cantab Capital Partners, a science-driven quantitative investment management company based in Cambridge.

About the University of Southampton's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Team (Soton UAV):

  • Soton UAV part of the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment's Computational Engineering and Design Group at the University of Southampton.
  • Consisting of academics, staff and post-graduate students, Soton UAV design, manufacture and fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from a research perspective. It works closely with the Royal Navy and other organisations.
  • In 2011, Soton UAV designed the world's first 3D printed UAV.
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