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University Relations

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May 15, 2009
Contact: Brendan M. Lynch, University Relations, (785) 864-8855.

Graduation stories: The sky’s no limit for senior designing unmanned aerial vehicle

Emily Arnold

LAWRENCE — Emily Arnold has spent much of her undergraduate career at the University of Kansas researching and building a sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicle that will help scientists better understand dwindling ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

The aerospace engineering major from Hillsboro will graduate this weekend with a 4.0 grade-point average in her field of study. Arnold is the longest-running undergraduate member of a subgroup designing the vehicle expressly for the KU-based Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets.

“For the last two years, I’ve been working with the structures and integration team,” Arnold said. “Our head designer will design a part, and I’ll help make it. So I’ve basically built the whole airplane at least structure-wise. And I’ve also helped with integration issues. Like when we have these two parts, how to we get them together?”

Arnold’s work was made possible by CReSIS’ $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which called on the Department of Aerospace Engineering to create an aerial platform to carry advanced ice-penetrating radar and other cutting-edge equipment.

The resulting aircraft — dubbed the “Meridian” — will begin flights this year high above Greenland and Antarctica with eight aerodynamic antennas slung beneath its wings to carry the sensors. The robot plane will soar through subzero conditions too dangerous for human pilots and recover data vital to scientists’ understanding of global warming, ice-sheet loss and the rise of ocean levels worldwide.

“I’ve earned an informal leadership role on the team,” Arnold said. “I’ve helped train new undergraduates that come and work.”

To be sure, Arnold’s dedication to the remote-controlled aircraft has won her respect from faculty and students, as well as the opportunity to continue her KU education in aerospace engineering as a doctoral student following her graduation.

“In my 11 years at the University of Kansas, I have mentored many dozen undergraduate research experiences,” said Richard Hale, associate professor of aerospace engineering. “The best of these students have always continued into graduate study, generally at the doctoral level. Emily ranks among the very best of those with whom I have worked. She will clearly succeed in graduate school and beyond.”

Arnold says that her gender within the world of engineering, a male-dominated discipline in the past, has not impeded her remarkable academic progress. Moreover, she sees an ever-increasing number of women aerospace engineers entering the field.

“It’s traditionally male, but as the years pass by it’s becoming more and more equal,” said the KU undergraduate. “I think there are four to six females in my class out of 30, so that’s not too bad. And next year when I’m in the graduate program, there are going to be four women pursuing doctorates, which is rather unusual. So it’s progressing more — probably not to equal — but at least to more of a presence of women.”

Beyond her KU work building aircraft for ice-sheet experts, Arnold now is designing a light sport airplane for a local company founded by a colleague from the Meridian project. The airplane may go into production within the next few years — perhaps creating 30 to 80 area jobs if manufacturing is regionally based, she estimated.

“A light sport aircraft is really a totally new category for the FAA,” said Arnold. “In my senior design class, one of the options you could design was an LSA. So I chose that since it seemed like the most appealing. I thought I could really go somewhere with my design. And in talking with people at KU and with the person who started the company, things just meshed together.”

Because of her drive and talent, those who have worked with Arnold on the Meridian see a great future for her as an aerospace engineer and entrepreneur.

“This young woman is one to watch,” said John Hunter, senior research assistant with the CReSIS/Meridian fabrication team. “I have seen that she is an extremely hard working, highly moral, highly responsible individual who is fun to work with.”

But Arnold, daughter of a social worker and editor of a small-town Kansas newspaper, said she always would keep in mind the support she has received along the way.

“This was really stepping out of where I came from,” she said. “KU is 10 times the size of my hometown. I had no idea what to expect. I was pretty successful academically in my hometown. But I thought, ‘Well, I’m competing against 45 other people, I don’t know what’s going to happen when I go to this big university.’ But stepping out really forces you to grow. The aerospace engineering department changed my life. Whatever you put in, the department gives back to you. I’ve really experienced that.”


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