By Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University rising junior Kayla Pineda is the recent winner of a 2022-2023 Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC) Undergraduate Research Scholarship. Kayla was awarded $8,500 to help fund drone research she has been conducting with ODU Computer Science Assistant Professor Sampath Jayarathna.

The project she has been working on is a gaze-based drone navigation. "We see it being useful in NASA search and rescue missions," said Pineda. As a sophomore, she worked alongside computer science Ph.D. students and was able to contribute to the development of an initial prototype.

She started doing research during her freshman year and applied for the VSGC under the direction of Dr. Jayarathna. "When I first met him to go over what I'm interested in, which was human-computer interaction at the time, he was already doing a drone project with one of his graduate students, and I saw that as a perfect fit for me," said Pineda. She started working with him on the drone project applying eye tracking techniques.

"Kayla got interested about our research group from a visit during the annual 'Trick-or-Research' event in the department of computer science and after that she wanted to volunteer in my lab" said Dr. Jayarathna. "I was really impressed with her sense of responsibility to the work, strong initiative, and ability to get quality work done during this time. Starting Fall 2021, I offered her a paid undergraduate research assistantship funded by NSF CAREER award to develop gaze-based drone navigation."

Drones are permeating many sectors of industry and are increasingly being employed as data collection platforms to support of an array of applications across disciplines and industries and can include package delivery, search and rescue, real estate, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure inspection, public safety, and many others. One of the significant research contributions of Pineda towards this regard is to help create a novel drone navigation framework. Her idea is based on using eye tracking to control a drone point-to-point navigation utilizing machine learning to designate waypoints in the visual field. In particular, the drone operator would be able to control the drone navigation by moving their eyes to a series of desired targets in a visual field.

Pineda enjoys solving problems through technology and has been challenged to do so. "Dr. Jayarathna says 'here is the goal, go experiment with it', and he is always available if I need help and so are the other lab mates," said Pineda. "It's really free reign to see what I can do and how far I can go."

Dr. Jayarathna nudged Pineda to apply to the VSGC for this scholarship and last year's VSGC STEM Bridge Scholarship which she also was received. Moreover, he encouraged her to apply to various National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate (REU) Sites and ODU's cybersecurity REU program which she has been accepted to join this summer. "Dr. Jayarathna encouraged me to apply to that and I saw opportunities that I didn't even know existed," said Pineda. Pineda is looking forward to ODU's cybersecurity REU program because she knows how research can continue to help her with her future goals.

Pineda has her sights set on combining her love of technology and art together. "One of my goals is to see how to apply what I learned in computer science to the world of art," said Pineda. Before coming to ODU, she was an art student at Salem High School in Virginia Beach. "One of the things I want to see is if I can apply computer science into virtual reality (VR) educational games," said Pineda. "High school educators and now ODU professors have been a big influence in my life." She wants to be able to give back to students while unlocking new ways of educating students in the future.

See the full list of winners of the VSGC grant.