Kevin Nikolaus: Scanning the Environment with Unmanned Aerial Systems

NAE Grand Challenge Scholar Profile

  • Major:  Mechanical Engineering; Energy and the Environment, German
  • Grand Challenge:  Engineering the Tools for Scientific Discovery
  • GC Advisor:  Dr. Michail Zavlanos
  • Project Title:  Mobile Robotics in Disaster Response and Environmental Management

By Kevin Nikolaus

My Grand Challenge Scholar research centers on the challenge of engineering the tools of scientific discovery. Although it is one of the less mentioned of the fourteen NAE grand challenges, I believe that it holds a crucial role in designing a better future.

"This program has certainly changed my perspective on engineering in a way that I can’t help but describe as career-altering. This is because, even though I have long been drawn toward technical work, my passion for environmentalism demands that I act to help solve the environmental challenges that loom ahead. I know this opportunity will be the highlight of my experience at Duke and affect my trajectory long after I graduate next spring."

I focus my work on unmanned aerial system (UAS) integration with the environmental and geophysical sciences—work that builds on my previous efforts in the Robotics and Manufacturing Automation laboratory at Duke as well as my cross-institutional collaboration with the Alaskan Center for Unmanned Aerial System Integration (ACUASI) and the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska. I am pursuing this line of research because accurate data about dangerous and hard-to-reach environments is important to understand our planet and its changes. To stress this point, I am looking at writing my grand challenge senior thesis on UAS collision avoidance in polar winter conditions.

This program has certainly changed my perspective on engineering in a way that I can’t help but describe as career-altering. This is because, even though I have long been drawn toward technical work, my passion for environmentalism demands that I act to help solve the environmental challenges that loom ahead. I know this opportunity will be the highlight of my experience at Duke and affect my trajectory long after I graduate next spring. I am already looking into opportunities with various start-ups as well as the Department of Interior and US Geological Survey to continue working the challenging task of robotic-assisted environmental research.