Justin Cooke: Aspiring to Improve Unmanned Aerial Flight

Justin Cooke: Aspiring to Improve Unmanned Aerial Flight

Justin Cooke
Justin Cooke

By the time prototype unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) get to the test phase, solving problems in flight can be expensive. Thanks to the science of computational fluid dynamics, those problems can be discovered during the design phase. It’s this branch of mechanical engineering that has fascinated Justin Cooke for years and inspired him to contribute to the development of the next generation of remote-controlled or autonomous aircraft.

“I believe drones have an immense capability in disaster areas and other places where people cannot, or should not, go,” Cooke explains. “Take Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, for instance. Had there been a network of drones capable of transporting medical supplies, food, water and more to remote areas, imagine the lives that could have been saved.”


As a doctoral GEM Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) at Penn Engineering, Cooke, as part of a multidisciplinary team of labs within the School, is working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop breakthrough UAV technologies that will not only support humanitarian efforts, but also improve national security.

Cooke’s research involves finding ways to solve problems relating to complex fluid systems that occur during UAV flight. With computational fluid dynamics, Cooke and his collaborators can predict various forces acting on a drone in flight in order to better optimize design. “I hope to be able to expand upon my work and formulate a reliable and cost-effective method to conduct computational simulations to aid in design optimization of UAVs,” says Cooke.


Cooke’s high-achieving grandfather, who was a Navy veteran, IBM engineer and the first Puerto Rican-born citizen to be offered admission to all three U.S. military academies, was key to setting him on the path of engineering and research. “He was a big influence in my life and inspired me to pursue an engineering education,” says Cooke.

After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, Cooke searched for opportunities to make an impact with a group of engineers interested in better understanding fluid mechanics and heat transfer. “When I visited Penn, I was greatly impressed by the faculty, graduate students and the emphasis on the collaborative environment,” he says. “I knew I wanted an advisor who fit well with me, and someone that I believed would help me achieve my goals. From my conversations with Dr. George Park, I knew that he would not only be a great mentor academically, but also someone who would help make me a better person.”

As a GEM Fellow, Cooke has joined the ranks of the National GEM Consortium, whose mission is to enhance the value of the nation’s human capital by increasing the participation of underrepresented groups (Hispanic Americans, Native Americans and African Americans) at the master’s and doctoral levels in engineering and science. “My ultimate goal is to become a professor at a research-driven university, have my own research lab and utilize my position to inspire and mentor members of the Hispanic community to go to college and pursue careers in STEM,” Cooke says. He believes the best way to accomplish this is to work alongside students. “I realize the power and importance of seeing someone with a similar background as you working as a successful engineer,” he explains.

Cooke enthusiastically adds, “Now that I’m here at Penn, I am excited to contribute to the forefront of research, collaboration and scientific advancement.”