Jose Hernandez | Poly Post

Bronco Ember reigns victorious after winning the NASA TechLeap Autonomous Observation Challenge

By Jose Hernandez

Cal Poly Pomona’s Bronco Space club burst into the summer with Bronco Ember launching a new student led idea into the stratosphere.

Amidst the prior season of wildfires across California, determining the origin of these wildfires is a challenge across the entire state. The goal for Bronco Ember was to identify wildfires using artificial technology and utilizing this new technology for firefighters to use in the local area.

Winning a NASA sponsored challenge is no small feat, Bronco Ember captured this memorable title with efforts between undergraduate students. While 2 other groups selected to advance in the competition, were at a think-tank from Colorado and a Texas A&M Doctorate level team. Bronco Space was team given eight months to show NASA a corroboration of a concept and 10 months to finalize their satellite.

Bronco Ember consists of a CubeSat, a miniature satellite, which has a wildfire detection system including artificial intelligence, edge computing and infrared imaging. The system is designed to be tiny and dense while simultaneously being able to provide enormous impact to the wildfire prevention and detection industry.

Michael Pham, Director of Technology, newly named Research Associate of Bronco Space navigates his journey with the inception of Bronco Space and opens with an intimate story,

“I was one of four founders of Bronco Space,” Pham said. “I have been here since the beginning. We started in 2019 in my dorm room with three of my other engineering friends had a crazy idea, honestly naive looking back, how hard could it be? And here we are, a space program and lab with over a million dollars in NASA funding that has been given to us through various projects, and one of those projects is Bronco Ember.”

Due to Pham and his engineering friend’s creative ambition, Bronco Ember continues to manifest new opportunities for the Bronco Space club members. Bringing in more financial backing from NASA, it legitimizes the club and its reputation.

Thanks to the efforts of the students involved in the initiation of the club, NASA-backed projects appeared onto the scene. Bronco Space is distinctly highlighted as a new caliber of technology, competing against undergraduate underdogs. This type of competition clearly sets the standard to the quality of projects Bronco Space launches. This includes machine learning and implementing the Polytechnic approach between every sizeable project worked in the club.

“The summer we wrote the application was around 2021, right after the ‘wildfire apocalypse,’” Pham said. “I was living in San Jose at the time, the bay area was looking like Blade Runner! So, we thought fire was a big problem, so we decided to write an application to NASA to get some money to help protect people from fires. When we were building our satellites in garages and kitchen tables, we had to evacuate one of the houses, we had to move all our hardware from the house that was being worked in because there was a fire two hills over. That was the inspiration for Bronco Ember. I had this very vivid memory when driving the satellite inside the Pelican case in the back of my car, we were driving down the highway and Cal Fire was doing retardant dumps.”

Jose Hernandez | Poly Post

Zach Gaines, Program Manager of Bronco Ember, began a part of Bronco Space early on as a student and shares the purpose the club has given him since joining and how the projects influenced his career. After graduating this past spring, Gaines shifted roles over to research associate while being the project manager overlooks the project’s plans.

“We have been part of NASA autonomous observation challenge and won the prize two years ago, one test flight and one in May of this year,” Gaines said, “Ember embraces the polytechnic experience while producing a concept of what a new instrument can be and able to fly in ten months, from a napkin design to flying on a balloon system we have had a wide-reaching effort of people coming in to get experience and the opportunity of working with industry partners such as NASA”

Alex Mariano, third year Computer Science student turned Lead Software Engineer, joined Bronco Space with no prior experience in the aerospace industry. Being in computer science, he never envisioned being a part of projects such as Bronco Ember

“I think Bronco Space is a perfect example of the polytechnic experience, the whole learn by doing philosophy we are teaching, it’s not something that has been done before,” Mariano said, “At the cutting edge of tech, and you will not learn how to do it unless you go out and do it. That is what’s special about Bronco Space and creating such an experience that we’re able to share this knowledge. It’s an incredible way of learning how to do things, putting what we learn in our classes and outside of our classes into a particular project and making it successful.”

Bronco Ember hopes to reach new heights and collaborate with local firefighters to help as many citizens as possible. The evolving technology and ideas provided by Bronco Ember and its team serve as an inspiration and symbol of hope to many across campus and the community.

“There are big goals for Bronco Ember to continue, it isn’t limited to its abilities, our selling point is also our camera info system, the cameras we have taken pictures of terrain and figure out the amount of vegetation in the area, with helping farmers with crop growth,” Mariano said. “Figure out how things are doing in the terrain. The system has already undergone its first test flight that provided successful results and a proving ground to continue development on emerging technology.”

Bronco Ember will continue to expand its reach to students across campus as they encourage students who don’t have to be an Aerospace Engineering major to join and expand their portfolios. The club embraces all majors and fields of study, so long as there is a passion for space. For more information on Bronco Space and Bronco Ember visit its website.

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