New Mexico Tech professor Mostafa Hassanalian holds up a drone designed for wildlife monitoring.
Cathy Cook | El Defensor Chieftain photos

In a second-floor room of the Skeen Library at New Mexico Tech’s campus is a laboratory full of experimental drones. There are drones designed to explore the lunar surface, to conduct research on Mars, drones disguised as flapping birds meant for wildlife research, and even drones without any wings at all—designed to mimic the movement of dandelion seeds and jellyfish.

The drone research laboratory is one of five drone labs at Tech run by Mostafa Hassanalian. The Tech professor’s research area is drone technology and biomimicry.

“It means how we can learn from nature, which has been evolved for millions of years, to enhance and increase the efficiency of different robotic systems or drone systems.”

Hassanalian has built New Mexico Tech’s drone program from the ground up since he joined the university. Along with teaching undergraduate and graduate students, he collaborates frequently on research with other Tech professors and scientists at other universities.

The Skeen Library drone research lab, formerly the library’s donkey head room named for a massive art piece that still resides on one wall, is a collaboration between the library and Hassanalian. University President Stephen Wells secured funding to create the space. Along with drones of all types and a test flight cage, the lab also has VR technology.

“We’re thankful to have Mostafa here with us,” Skeen Librarian David Cox said.

The library is trying to move toward more modularity and potentially add more lab spaces.

The lab is equipped with a drone test flight cage that allows students to fly drones from home. Flying a drone outdoors requires training and licensing. The indoor cage makes it simpler for students to learn to fly drones, as no license is needed to fly in the enclosed indoor space. The drone cage is equipped with laser lights and fog machines to visualize airflow patterns, along with fans that can be programmed to create any wind pattern. Heat can be created in the drone cage and the intensity of light changed.

The top of a dandelion seed-inspired drone. Solar panel strips power the drone.

“So, this cage is equipped with three tracking systems,” Hassanalian said. “All those red cameras, two black boxes, there are four of these ultrasonic sensors, so it’s a sound-based tracking system. So, you will be able to fly drones online. Through the internet, you can get connected to this cage. You can see, there’s multiple webcams inside.”

All of these features have made the drone cage useful for research, including for wildlife monitoring drones that Hassanalian and some of his students have been working on. The drones have flapping wings and are made with taxidermy birds so that herds of animals could be observed aerially without being disturbed.

“About half of my research is drones for planetary exploration,” Hassanalian said.

Hassanalian and his students have worked on drone designs that could be released on the Martian surface to explore lava tubes, which NASA’s rovers cannot enter. The lava tubes could potentially be an area where future Mars explorers live below the planet’s harsh surface. The dandelion-inspired drone design includes sensors for heat, gas and pressure, plus the ability to send information back to its parent drone and thin strips of solar panels.

While the dandelion design is small—a paper-thin top and wire stem—a much larger drone project with an untraditional form sits by one wall in the lab.

“We are developing a jellyfish-inspired drone, which is a helium gas, so it’s moving the legs, and it will be able to fly. The only difference between the water and the air is just the type of fluid, so if you have the same mechanics, that would be able to fly. So that’s carrying multiple underwater robots and would be able to drop them into the water, and they would be able to do exploration under the water as well.”


Part of Hassanalian’s mission is to educate young people and teachers on drones. Since 2019, he’s been offering summer mini classes for high school students, who learn how to build fixed wing drones in five days.

“They learned about how to design, about the fundamental of the design, how to model in the software.”

Along with providing drone education, the programs help recruit students to New Mexico Tech. The outreach programs are designed to be taught for any age group, and Hassanalian has taught middle and elementary students about drone technology.

“There has been lots of interest, specifically once you integrate biomimicry drone, because specifically in the middle age, middle school students, elementary school, or even kindergarten, they understand very well animals, because they love them.”

He’s also taught over 100 teachers about drones through New Mexico Tech’s Master of Science for Teachers program and through MESA programs.

Hassanalian has lectures on drone technology and other outreach information online at