Raya Islam: Using Drones for Conservation

Major: Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Raya Islam

Challenge: Engineering the Tools of Scientific Discovery 

GC Advisor: Professor Missy Cummings

Project: Using Drones as Tools for Animal Conservation 

How did you know you wanted to go into engineering?

I did robotics in high school, and I always found myself liking the hands-on stuff as opposed to the electrical stuff. I also knew that I wanted to go into a research lab to see what it was like, and then to see if I wanted to pursue grad school within mechanical engineering. I started in Missy Cummings’s lab during my sophomore year and I enjoyed how it forced me to challenge myself to figure things out.

What was your project for the Grand Challenge Scholars Program?

I do drone research to count elephants in an efficient way for conservation. Currently, you manually count the elephants or depend on dung piles. Working in Missy Cummings’s lab introduced me to the world of drones and how they can be used in unique ways, this being one of them. My goal was to create a fully integrated drone system using a tablet and a camera, and integrate that into an existing drone design so you can count the elephants using a tablet connected to the drone, all for under $1,500. After we got it working we were able to test it in Gabon, Africa.  We learned that people at these parks have a huge need for this technology. When we came back I also tried to address the sounds that drones make, so that the sound doesn’t disturb the elephants, and this will eventually be able to tell us what drones are better for wildlife conservation research.

How has your experience been working with faculty at Duke?

Dr. Cummings has been an incredible guiding force and presence in my Duke career. She’s given me so many opportunities that sometimes it feels like I’m working at the level of a grad student, so working in her lab was a great learning experience. I didn’t know anything going into it, but it was all about taking initiative and working by yourself to figure things out. I was put on a drone project quickly, and one of the things that was great was that I had a lot of deliverables like presentations that were great learning opportunities to bring me up to speed.

Is there an experience that defined your time at Duke?

I don’t think there is one single experience because there are too many to choose from. I’m grateful that I made it here, and for me for every bad experience I may have had there were five good experiences. Being an engineer at Duke taught me how to figure out my problems and approach things with a new perspective.

What are your plans moving forward?

I’m working at a start-up called Uncharted Play in New York City that will create renewable energy products. It’s geared towards developing regions that don’t have great grid access, and I’m going to be helping with product development and working this technology into everyday products. Additionally they have a big educational aspect that I’m really passionate about. That was a big part of my service component for my Grand Challenge Project, called Girls Engineering Change, where we worked with girls to introduce them to engineering by having them build small projects with engineering kits.  I’m glad to continue in that vein of research and build off what I experienced with the Grand Challenge Scholars Program.