Water for Food

Jim Higgins


University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student Jim Higgins in the NIMBUS Lab with a water-sampling UAV.

“I’ve discovered that I really enjoy learning. And when I stop learning stuff I get bored really fast.” 

In the same room where Nebraska football coaches used to break down defensive strategies, Jim Higgins breaks in a new gasket for a water-slurping drone. The Beatrice native is designing the mechanical guts for a drone – also known as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) – that can sample water at depths of up to 10 feet. The first-year graduate student works in the NIMBUS, or Nebraska Mobile Unmanned Systems Lab, part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Schorr Center for Computer Science & Engineering that’s housed underneath Memorial Stadium. His adviser, Daugherty Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow Carrick Detweiler, is also the lab’s co-director. He values Higgins’ mechanical design expertise, noting “Jim has a lot of insights into what will work. He’s been invaluable.”

In August 2014, the Water for Food Institute awarded its inaugural round of student support grants to faculty fellows. The grants provide stipends to students like Higgins who are working on projects that contribute to a more water and food secure world. For Higgins, this means designing and redesigning parts – like a quick release mechanism enabling drones to drop and retrieve water sample pods – that allow easy and swift data collection. “When things get easier and cheaper, you can get more samples. And the more knowledge you have, you can make better informed decisions about safety or quality of water,” says Higgins.

To create these parts, Higgins must integrate his mechanical design know-how with the less familiar fields of robotics and sensor networks. That, he says, is where Detweiler is instrumental. “He has a wealth of knowledge, especially in this subject. It’s nice to have someone downgrade the learning curve.”


A Nimbus Lab UAV samples lake water in Nebraska.

“All of the scientists we’ve talked to say surface samples are great, but they want samples down below. Why? Because stratification, temperature, biological and chemical properties are different at different depths.”

-DWFI Faculty Fellow Carrick Detweiler on the value of his students’ research

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