Electrical Engineering Student’s NBA Moment

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Vignesh Mohanraj, third from the left, with the Intel Drone for the 2017 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest.
(Photo by Tyler Kaufman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Vignesh Mohanraj helped make history earlier this year with the first ever drone-assisted dunk in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

Mohanraj, an international graduate student studying electrical engineering at Loyola Marymount University’s Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, helped design, create, and operate a drone for Intel that assisted Orlando Magic forward, Aaron Gordon with dunking the ball for the 2017 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest during the 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend.

Considered one of the most high-tech assists, the drone flew high enough to drop the ball with considerable bounce. Gordon then dunked the ball, mixing in some spin moves.

“I just had one chance to prove myself,” said Mohanraj. “There were 25,000 people in the stadium and 10 million people watching it live all over the world. A lot was at stake. I just had one chance, and I achieved it.”

Gordon wanted more of a technology presence for his dunk in the competition. So he approached Intel about developing a drone that could assist with this dunk since it had never been done before.

“We wanted to show how technology could help basketball players perform these activities. Intel wanted to show that drones aren’t just there to take pictures, but that they can do more,” said Mohanraj.

Intel partnered with L.A. Drones – where Mohanraj is currently an intern – to do all their drone-related work. L.A. Drones offered him the electrical engineering position on this project.

“This was huge to me, to be given a project this big,” said Mohanraj. “I’m still a student and had been doing small projects. I felt like I was going from 10 percent to 100 percent.”

Mohanraj was in charge of the electrical design of the drone and claw that could carry a basketball. This meant solving some standard drone design problems like getting the drone to lift and drop a basketball, short battery life and the radio frequency in a stadium full of interference.

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Intel Drone assisting Aaron Gordon with dunk.

“There was tremendous stress from my side. The entire system had to be robust and highly efficient so that it worked,” recalled Mohanraj. “If it failed, since I’m representing Intel, it would directly affect Intel and their stock. Aaron Gordon was relying on us, with his reputation at stake.”

Mohanraj’s project was a success and helped make history that night, giving Mohanraj aspirations for the future.

“It was extremely rewarding and gave me a lot of confidence in myself that I can create new and better things.”

Graduating from LMU in May, Mohanraj plans to either pursue a Ph.D. or take a position in a tech company in the fields of computer vision and robotics.

“LMU has been great to me,” said Mohanraj. “They have always offered me the means to pursue my research and appreciates talent and unique ideas.”