CPP’s Bronco Space Lab launches Bronco Ember satellite 

By Connie Lee, Sept.13, 2022

The Cal Poly Pomona Bronco Space Lab was awarded $500,000 from NASA in 2021 to successfully launch their system, the CubeSat satellite, in South Dakota. The satellite is designed to utilize a thermal and visible light camera to detect small wildfires.

According to recent electrical engineer graduate and team lead engineer, Tyler Boardman, the funds from NASA was given in rounds. The first round Bronco Ember received $200,000, while the second and third round added up to  a total of $500,000.

“The first time it was definitely unexpected,” said Boardman. “The reason why we found it a little unexpected is just because it was not just a college project or something that only universities were doing. It was something that private labs or companies could also apply for.”

Bronco Ember had eight months to present NASA a functional concept and 10 months to complete their satellite. A weather balloon was launched on July 8 carrying the satellite up to an altitude of 100,000 feet where it was then controlled by surrounding weather conditions.

The criteria that Bronco Ember initiated for the NASA TechLeap challenge was to provide the overall mission objective. The team presented their ideas on what is required to complete the project along with a detailed breakdown and visual examples such as block diagrams to show the technical aspects.

Courtesy of Aaron Propst

According to Matthew McDougall, an aerospace engineering student and team integration and testing operator, the team tested the CubeSat for an exposure test before being sent out for flight to make sure it could capture the fire in focus.

A thermal test was assessed by placing the satellite into an insulated box filled with dry ice to simulate the conditions of high altitude alongside extreme conditions.

Zachary Gaines, an aerospace engineering student and project manager, shared that the final test that the team conducted was at the beach, where they lit up a fire pit and then placed the satellite on a hill to ensure that the fire was detectable.

“We got a lot of good successes from the launch, there’s a couple things we are still looking to improve like some of our calibrations and artificial intelligence,” said Gaines. “That’s why we are planning on working with NASA during this upcoming year as well.”

With the funds received from NASA, the Bronco Space Lab was able to work and fund the Bronco Ember, but and also funded getting an off-campus lab along with purchasing materials for the club.

The purpose of Bronco Ember was to utilize artificial intelligence to repeatedly run codes until it discovered a hot spot or heat signature from fires. After the algorithm detects signs of a fire, the Bronco Ember satellite retrieves the fire’s location and sends it to the local fire department to be neutralized before it turns into an acre fire.

“I was in charge with communicating with the fire department and finding if we need any permits or regulations to set fires,” said Jacqueline Llamas, an aerospace engineer and team lead for integration and testing. “I was in contact with three different fire chiefs in South Dakota and we went over the flight paths because they were constantly changing due to weather … finding a location was the biggest action for us.”

The launch in South Dakota was a demonstration of the technology of the system and was flown across on a gondola after the team lit a controlled fire. In the future, the Bronco Space Lab plans to work on tracking the device and allowing more data to be collected when flying.

“I was pleasantly surprised by how the team works together,” said McDougall. “That’s one thing I noticed a lot about CPP student teams is that they are very collaborative and a great way to get a start what you would be doing in the industry.”

The Bronco Space Lab is located next to CPP’s main campus. For more information, visit their website.

Feature image courtesy of Aaron Propst

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