Green Guide

Teens work to enhance drone for whale studies

Posted 9:51 a.m. Monday

— Iain Kerr isn't running Fight Club in the laboratory that Ocean Alliance has crafted out of the reformed shipping container just inside its gates at Rocky Neck's most prominent property. It's Robotics Club.

Still there are rules. Rule No. 1 of Robotics Club? Don't forget to bring the drone.

The kids from Ipswich High School ran afoul of that rule one night, leaving behind their drone in colleague Roman Gadbois' Gloucester basement. But in keeping with the spirit of the club and its entrepreneurial mission, that slip became just another problem to overcome, another hurdle to clear along the course to invention.

"They're pretty fearless," Kerr said of his teenage charges. "They come in. They experiment. They learn. And a lot of times, they know this stuff better than me."

Kerr, Ocean Alliance's chief executive officer, started the Robotics Club as one of Ocean Alliance's premier efforts at community outreach, a win-win that would provide free professional resources to help spread the gospel of science to the next generation while also providing youth and depth to the Ocean Alliance bench.

The club, which now numbers about 80 students on its mailing list, meets Wednesday nights. Some kids stop in to take turns on the lab's two flight simulators and others are using the facility to design and build their own remote-control airplanes.

Kevin Nolan, a senior at Gloucester High School, was the first to arrive to continue his experiments on non-Newtonian fluids, which are fluids that adopt different properties depending upon how much stress is applied.

"When you apply force to it, it acts as a solid," Nolan said, holding a cut-off plastic bottle about one-third full of what looked like cake icing, but in reality was a mixture of corn starch and water. "But when you let it sit and have minimal force, it can act as a liquid."

Moments later, the contingent of four Ipswich High students arrived (a fifth, Peyton Fitzgerald, would roll in later) to continue their work on a project near and dear to Kerr's heart — enhancing the vaunted Snotbot drone that Ocean Alliance uses to collect whale mucous for analysis.

"When I first talked with them, I told them about a real problem I'm having with the Snotbot and I asked them if they wanted a challenge." Kerr said.

The problem, Kerr told them, was the operator's inability to know precisely how far the drone was above its subject matter — particularly when that subject is a massive marine mammal making its way through the world's oft-turbulent oceans.

The challenge, he said, was to devise a way to inform the operator of the precise distance between the drone and the subject and do it in such a way that it didn't impede the drone's ability to sustain stable flight.

"They didn't back down," Kerr said.

Instead, the team of Annabelle Platt, Gadbois, Kernan Filip, Lily Acevedo and Fitzgerald went to work.

"We had to figure out what our options are and which routes to pursue," said Gadbois, who lives in Gloucester, but attends Ipswich High. "This was the real world."

They ruled out using barometric sensors or GPS and settled on the concept of using a laser altimeter to measure the distance. The altimeter would be attached to a drone and its numeric distance readings ultimately transferred from two microboards to the operator as an audio signal.

So, as the drone moved up and down, the operator would hear the distance in feet through headphones.

"It's accurate to a millimeter," Gadbois said

Over the past eight weeks, the crew has spent more than a collective 400 hours (and about $600) researching the problem and potential solutions, designing the necessary hardware — including the box to hold the altimeter — and writing the software.

"We've definitely learned a lot more technical stuff that we didn't know before," Platt said. "In some ways, at least for me, it was like teaching my brain to think in the right way, to think about things before we do them and it's too late."

Work on Oct. 12 was to include the first test flight of their drone with the most recent prototype of the altimeter, which would have been easier if they'd remembered to bring their drone.

Instead, Kerr supplied one of Ocean Alliance's drones and the team went to work adapting and installing their altimeter to the new drone.

Then the team, along with Kerr and others, stepped outside for the test flight.

With the lights of downtown Gloucester winking in the background across the inky harbor, Kerr took the controls and fired up the drone. As it attempted to lift off, the drone lurched forward and cartwheeled into the pavement, its propellers scattering.

"Welcome to science," Kerr said with a laugh.

They brought the drone back inside and did a quick inspection to make sure it wasn't damaged. Then they set out trying to figure out why the takeoff didn't go as planned. One theory was the batteries in the remote control unit were faulty; others wondered whether the location of the altimeter on the drone was to blame.

Minutes later, they were back outside for another go. This time the drone lifted effortlessly and buzzed smoothly in the sky above Ocean Alliance's parking lot. Unfortunately, the distance readings weren't successfully transmitting — giving the team yet another task to work on next week.

"Come back next week," Gadbois told a visitor. "It will be better next week."

Necessity may be the motherhood of invention, but a little optimism never hurts either.


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