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DIY drones a hit at Insitu

Spencer Honald, left, an incoming senior at The Dalles High School, and college senior Julian Rogers were mentors at last week’s RoboFlight Academy, sponsored by Insitu and held in White Salmon. They are holding some drones they created during the weeklong academy.

Photo by Neita Cecil
Spencer Honald, left, an incoming senior at The Dalles High School, and college senior Julian Rogers were mentors at last week’s RoboFlight Academy, sponsored by Insitu and held in White Salmon. They are holding some drones they created during the weeklong academy.

A pile of eight gutted Ironman toys sat on the gym floor last week at Insitu’s RoboFlight Academy, held at Henkle Middle School in White Salmon.

The remote-controlled flying toys had been stripped of their circuit boards and motors, which were put to better use in a variety of made-from-scratch drones by the 25 mostly Gorge area teens enrolled in the weeklong program, which just finished its sixth year.

As a few other drones quietly zoomed around the gym, incoming The Dalles High School senior Spencer Honald was in a corner working on a challenging project: creating a flying wing.

He’s been to the academy four times, and is in a mentor role now, as is his project partner, incoming college senior Julian Rogers, who is an intern at Insitu and a five-time attendee of the academy.

Insitu, a maker of unmanned aircraft systems, has locations in White Salmon, Bingen and Hood River.

Insitu’s academy, said Rogers, is meant to get high school students interested in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, “to give them an opportunity to see what opportunities there are in engineering fields.”

Incoming The Dalles High School sophomore George Harrison said a highlight of the week is “you get to build your own drones, from scratch.”

Other attendees created gliders. “It’s been really great because it’s self-driven, depending on what their interests are,” said Tammy Kaufman, community relations coordinator for Insitu.

On the track outside the gym, one group was flying quadcopters, another gliders, and another was using FPV (first person view) equipment. In FPV, a small camera is mounted to a drone, and the pilot can see what the camera is viewing through a live video down-link to goggles.

In the gym, Honald pointed to some electronics on a drone. “We took the goodies and the goodies are on our plane now,” he said of the guts of the Iron Man.

They distributed the controllers and motors to four teams so each could create their own drone.

But, through “various accidents,” a few sets of Iron Man electronics got fried, Rogers said.

“I burnt a hole through the bottom of the plane I was working on,” Honald said. “It set it on fire.”

He had modeled it after one of Insitu’s better known unmanned vehicles, the Integrator.

Rogers said, “There’s a lot of breaking stuff and fixing it again, which is fun.”

Their new project, the flying wing, started with a 4x6-foot piece of foam board. As they sliced at it to create their wing, they had to make careful calculations, using geometry and simple algebra, to determine the center of lift and the center of gravity.

“The flying wings are the hardest to make, no one’s done that here,” Honald said.

The $40 Iron Man toys “never really flew,” Honald explained. And a batch of $120 FlyBrix, which are DIY drones, also didn’t fly well with their included electronics.

“The software wasn’t put together very well,” said Honald, a member of a top-placing robotics team at The Dalles High School. “They would crash really easy. It was really hard to control.”

So the IRON Man electronics were dropped into the FlyBrix structure, with hopes of improved performance.

Other teams made their own drones with foam, hot glue guns, electronics, knowledge and ingenuity.

As for building a home-made drone, Rogers said, “there’s lots of different ways of doing it. That’s the innovation, that’s the fun of it.”

Of the four teams, some built quadcopters, others hexacopters or even octacopters. “Those things eat batteries though,” Honald said of the latter.

The teams were tasked with creating their own drone. Ironically, the Iron Mans were bought just as a fun little idea, but ended up becoming the main draw of the camp, Honald said.

Harrison is back at the academy this year as a mentor. He was on the green team.

Having so many drones flying around in a gym does come with some hazard. “I got hit by two drones so far. I don’t know if it was on purpose,” he joked.

His team cobbled together parts of multiple store-bought drones to create their own. Asked if their efforts worked, Harrison said, “Yeah, sometimes.”

The FlyBrix are rebuildable drones, and they have definitely required rebuilding. When they landed their drone, it broke up because the arms couldn’t support each other and the base couldn’t support itself. “So we hot glued the whole thing,” he said.

“It flies really well but it’s really hard to control,” he said.

The attendees were flying the drones through apps on their smart phones.

At the camp, attendees are learning about what Insitu does, Harrison said. “And they’re learning how to do things for themselves. They’re learning about aerodynamics and the outside forces that act on an airplane or drone when it’s in flight.”

Those forces, he said, are thrust, drag, lift and weight. “You’re also having fun,” he said. “When I was making this I couldn’t wait to have it done and fly it around,” he said of his drone.

Attendees also heard from college professors and Insitu volunteers, said Insitu’s Dave Laning, PhD. Other presenters included an expert on 3D printing, an official from Google, a professor who talked about the physics of flight, and a federal official who spoke about flight rules for drones.

Another presenter was the man responsible for the drone safety program at Burning Man, a huge festival in Nevada. At another station, academy attendees got to learn basic computer programming.

“It’s been absolutely a blast,” said Laning.

In 2012, Insitu got a grant for a program aimed at STEM outreach, Laning said. Every year since, the program has been fine tuned.

“We’ve made improvement every year to the curriculum,” he said. It is specifically held after Independence Day when the weather is reliably clear.

It’s also fire season, and the academy was sharing the grounds of Henkle Middle School with a fire crew. One drone accidentally landed by their tents.

Laning focuses on how to resource and task mentors, and on choosing the right equipment for the program.

Costs have gone down for planes and drones, and things like smart phones have proliferated, so attendees can use them to fly drones.

Harrison said last year, the academy ended with each student talking about what they learned and what they’d like to see improved upon.

When he spoke, “I said everything was great but they should add more things to the agenda and that’s exactly what they did.”


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