Piloting the UChicago-Fermilab shuttle

Effective, efficient, fun: Craig Hogan flies into Fermilab. Photo: Dianne Diannadanna

Effective, efficient, fun: Craig Hogan flies into Fermilab. Photo: Dianne Diannadanna

So close, yet so far away. That’s how University of Chicago scientists often describe the relationship between the south Chicago university campus and the west Chicagoland Fermilab grounds. Although the lab is only 45 miles from the university, the separation can translate into a two-hour commute one way — a troublesome trip for UChicago physicists who regularly visit the lab for research or meetings.

Noting that the highway is not the high way, a group of enterprising UChicago and Fermilab scientists and engineers have, on their own time, worked on a commute solution that shortens the travel time and elevates the fun.

Today, Decent Rides Over North Easternillinois unveiled a program that will convey UChicago physicists to the lab and back using a dedicated fleet of drones.

“We’re scientists and engineers. We know how to free ourselves from the tyranny of gravity,” said University of Chicago and Fermilab physicist Craig Hogan, one of the DRONE members. “We aren’t beholden to the interstate, or even to the ground. So we made an airborne shuttle happen.”

DRONE collaborators have spent the last two years selecting their drone model; tinkering with it for maximum comfort; working with facilities management groups at both institutions to install vertipads for landing; working through the proper FAA channels to obtain permission to operate the drone along a prescribed path; and working with their legal offices on liability matters. They even designed a coverall to wear for winter flying.

“It was all worth it. That drive was just killing me. This is so freeing,” said scientist Aaron Chou, who also works at both institutions. “It’s better for the environment. It’s faster. It’s more fun. And anyone with a UChicago affiliation can use it to get to Fermilab.”

Fermilab employees and users with University of Chicago credentials are eligible to check out one of the eight drones in the DRONE fleet. The program tracks mileage for each user and charges him or her accordingly.

When told about the program, some noted that the shuttle is more attention-getting than anything.

“It isn’t a subtle way to get to work, that’s true,” Hogan said. “But soon, this will be an everyday mode of transportation, and the novelty will wear off, so why not enjoy the ride now? Or watch us enjoy it?”

Encouraged by their southside colleagues’ spunk and inferring a challenge of some sort, several Northwestern University scientists have already decided to launch an Evanston shuttle — and do it better. The Unsubtle Shuttle Rebuttal team are designing their own drones, aiming to create a model that can reach cruise speeds of 150 miles per hour.

“I-55 is a bear, but I-294 is no picnic, either, and we think we can get here even faster than the Phoenix set. The time we save commuting using three dimensions can be used to research our universe’s four dimensions,” said Eric Dahl, a scientist at Northwestern and Fermilab, who did a quick calculation immediately after saying this. “I’d say this moves up the timeline for the discovery of the nature of dark matter by a whole year.”

Then the Nobel Prize? That’s nothing to drone at.