Civil engineering assistant professor receives $299K National Science Foundation grant

Nick Fang, civil engineering assistant professor, sits outside Nedderman Hall on Nov. 11. Fang is part of a team researching how to use unmanned aerial vehicles to survey areas hit by natural disasters.

It can take years for families to receive insurance compensation after a hurricane hits, said Nick Fang, civil engineering assistant professor. 

Armed with an innovative approach and a $299,000 National Science Foundation grant, Fang hopes to speed that process up. 

Fang is part of a multi-university project that is expanding unmanned aerial vehicle capabilities to survey areas hit by natural disasters such as hurricanes. The project is in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. 

The project will start in January and will have deliverables at the end of a two-year period, Fang said. 

There are three research areas in the project, said Qunying Huang, geography associate professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. 

These include developing the first unsupervised detection model for mapping the extent of flood damage with UAVs, making an estimation of flood depth using UAV photos and developing a real-time analysis of how flooding affects roadways.  

Fang said natural disasters make victims’ lives hard, and a delay in payment by an insurance company can make their lives even harder. 

Most UAV usage is in image gathering, Fang said. This project will expand UAV capabilities to be able to do things like help first responders find survivors via infrared technology, provide topographic information and provide real-time data on the level of damage after a natural disaster.  

Huang has been working on the project with Fang since May 2019. She said Fang is a well-known expert in the use of UAVs for scientific purposes, including flooding. 

Prior to this project, Fang was credited by the Texas Medical Center for minimizing flood damage during Hurricane Harvey. 

Huang said the project is expected to improve sustainability and livability in coastal regions. 

This level of research puts the department on the national radar, said Ali Abolmaali, civil engineering chairperson and professor. 

Abolmaali said the National Science Foundation grants are prestigious and hard to obtain. They are usually only awarded if the research is related to or has a global impact, he said. 

“This is a National Science Foundation grant and the rate of success is very low,” Abolmaali said.“When someone like [Fang] receives such a grant, that means that he’s among the top competitors in the country.” 

@SpencerBrewer10

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