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Elena Parrello, a fifth year senior studying unmanned aircraft engineering at University of North Dakota, is determined that there is a better way to inspect sewers. Rather than sending people into the sewage system, she’s designing a drone that would be able to fly through tunnels by being programmed with underground municipal maps, and use high-quality cameras to take photos and video.

The idea came from watching “way too much TV,” 22-year-old Parrello says. She was watching Dirty Jobs on her couch when the idea for using drones hit her like the pungent waft from the tunnels themselves.

“I thought, there’s got to be better way than people crawling around in these tunnels,” she said.  “Then I thought — unmanned aircraft.”

It wasn’t until two years later, however, that she brought up her ideas with the head of unmanned aircraft program in Clifford.

“That got the ball rolling,” she said. From there she applied and was accepted to the Innovate ND program, and started building a prototype. Her company is called, fittingly, Sunshine Industrial Inc.

She also began working with Miguel Danielson of Danielson Legal LLC to get a provisional patent on her work. He told her about the student competition at this year’s Drone Focus Conference. Parrello took the stage on June 1 and shared her idea with an audience that included the director of NASA’s airspace operations and safety program, and managing director of major drone company SenseFly.

How it works

Parrello plans to use the municipal maps that already exist for the sewage system to program drones to navigate the complex underground tunnels.

“We can scan [the maps] into the data base, and then use desktop software in order to choose a specific area of tunnels to inspect,” she said. “Those flight tunnels get downloaded into a crypt — a flight program downloaded into a jump drive.”

That jump drive would then be plugged into the drone, which could then read the map and head out on its autonomous journey through the sewers, taking high-quality 360 degree video footage along the way. Such footage would be just as good inspection by human eye, if not better than, Parrello said.

“Right now if we use better cameras, or infrared, we could even see more than we could with the human eye,” she said. “All you’d need to do is zoom in.”

Currently Parrello is using a standard quad-copter to do the job, equipping it with the necessary components. Because GPS systems don’t work underground, the drone requires over eight sensors in order to fly through the tunnels without hitting the walls.

In theory, Parrello said, she could put her hardware on any drone and use it that way; in the long run, a small sphere shaped drone would be the perfect sewer scrounger. And as technology gets smaller — and it’s only getting smaller, she said — the drones could be able to inspect things like 4 inch piping.

For now, however, she’s focused on having something to show by Christmas.

“By the end of this year I should have a full prototype or else I’m going to make a full prototype happen,” she said. “Hopefully by Christmas I can prove that it flies in tunnels.”

“I want to help people.”

Parrello’s interest in aerospace traces back to 8th grade, when a family friend took her and her mom up in an airplane. “He even let me fly for a bit,” she said.

This changed everything. Parrello, living in Larimore, North Dakota at the time, was immediately drawn to aerospace, and from there to the world of unmanned aircraft. She chose University of North Dakota because it was the only university in the country with a degree in unmanned aircraft, she said.

“There is always a disconnect between engineers and the operators,” she said. “I figured if I was both, I wouldn’t have that issue. I want to be an operator of UAS so I can become a better engineer of UAS.”

It was always her intent to use her skills to benefit people, she said. After seeing the dark passages of sewage systems, and meeting with sewer inspection directors, she sees a distinct need to reform the system.

“I want to help people,” she said. “It isn’t fun being in a small dark tunnel all day long. It’s sewage that you’re standing in. If I can, I want to keep those people above ground and healthy as long as possible.”


Catch Elena and hear her story on August 8, 2016, at 1 Million Cups Fargo. Join us at 9:15 AM at the Stage at Island Park.

Photo courtesy of Dan Francis Photography.

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Marisa Jackels