Nikiski and Seward take to the skies

Thursday and Friday, November 12 and 13

As winter began to close in it was time for more learning and training in Nikiski and Seward. Jacob in Nikiski, along with staff and students were ready to get their UAV’s off the ground. Nikiski had been having trouble with their hexacopter. It was the “can’t get this thing to fly” kind of trouble. The goal at Nikiski was to help get them up back up and running and get started with a successful autonomous flight. Seward had a functional copter but were looking for help with mission planning as it related to mapping creek beds. We were here to help both teams continue their progress. 

Teacher Jake Doth talks to students about flight plans

Teacher Jake Doth talks to students about flight plans

Calm winds and blue skies foretold fun times in Nikiski. The Nikiski crew had been puzzled over problems with the UAV and as of late the quad copter refused to cooperate so the first critical job was to trouble shoot the trouble.  Corey and Scott examined therecalcitrant contraption and found it needed a wire soldered. That pesky electricity!  Corey did some sweet soldering of a tiny wire with a big soldering gun. The UAV was declared alive and well and it was time to fly! 

But it wasn’t. It didn’t.  In spite of Corey’s experience and skills with a soldering iron the hexacopter was uncooperative and unflyable. It took a little puzzling and head scratching before the team realized the “manual inputs [did not] match the outputs we see from the aircraft”.  The students watched Corey and Scott figure out the problem but our team was not going to be available 24/7 for trouble shooting so once the wiring problem was understood the students were enlisted to take over the rewiring of the motors so everything would be in proper sync. 

With the hexacopter wiring repaired and the motors set in sync with the controller, Jacob and the Nikiski students were able to work up an autonomous flight using Mission Planner. Jacob got some great specific, critical tips on the numerous small but important points on flying that are hard to find on u-tube, like critical voltages for fail-safe settings and the use of Mission Planner software.  We finished at Nikiski with a highly successful series of autonomous flights and left the staff and students another bit further down the flight path to success. 

Seward Teacher George Reising speaks with students while Corey Upton adjusts the UAV.

Seward Teacher George Reising speaks with students while Corey Upton adjusts the UAV.

Seward saw a bit of a change in weather. The Fairbanks team arrived in Seward and were greeted by 55mph gusts of wind with weather predictions of more to come. It was obvious we would not be flying in Seward. Obvious but wrong. At Seward High School we learned from community members about some of the issues that the UAV project is looking to answer including surface elevations of troublesome areas in the Kenai River drainage and related sediment deposits. Our goal was to do mission planning in preparation for such mapping and George had just the place outside of town where the winds were predicted to be much lower.  With some skill and luck we hoped to get actual data points that would be of use to the community. 

After quickly changing from “we won’t be outside” clothing to more normal Alaskan attire we headed out of town with George and the students involved with the Modern Blanket Toss. Corey Upton, who has had extensive experience with autonomous flight using Mission Planner helped create a series of flight plans on the spot while ensuring students were able to see and understand the process. Everyone enjoyed watching the hexacopter fly out, run the pre-programmed path and return and land within just a foot of its original take-off spot on a flat patch of snow. The days flying resulted in excellent data images and have already been massaged by software into a 3D model of the creek. The team attempted to download the data and images after returning but the reality of the amount of data collected meant that the post-processing was going to take hours. Before leaving the UAF team was also able to help the students and staff in Seward find another small bit of hardware trouble with their smaller UAVs. 

The Modern Blanket Toss continues to learn how to fly higher day by day!