Flight School


Student-built airplane takes high-resolution pictures from the sky, opens research opportunities

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Robert P. Hernandez

Drone 1
Dan Opalacz ’10 launches the Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle (UAV) he and Foster Huntington ’10 designed and built this year as a science, technology and society senior capstone project.

To call them the modern-day Wright brothers might be pushing it. But Foster Huntington ’10 and Dan Opalacz ’10 needed their brotherly friendship to make it through some challenging situations this year, as they ran into glitch after glitch—and trees and fences—with their homemade Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle (UAV). “This is mine and Dan’s baby. We’ve had, you know, screaming-at-each-other battles,” said Huntington, as Opalacz laughed. “We’ve gone to places, crashed the plane, and just haven’t talked on the car ride back, we’re just so pissed at each other.”

But after a year and, they say, thousands of hours of work, the science, technology and society (STS) majors are still friends and have nearly perfected a model airplane that flies on GPS (Global Positioning System) coordinates and takes high-resolution images of the land below—images that put Google Earth to shame. The two knew they weren’t the first to create this technology, but they had a specific goal: to create something that other students could use in their research—and to do it on the cheap.

“There’s kind of two kinds of UAVs. There’s the military UAV,” said Opalacz—“which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars,” added Huntington—“and that’s like the only UAV the government really uses. And then there’s these UAVs, which we make out of foam. And ours costs fifteen hundred dollars.”

In fact it was a U.S. Air Force and Navy UAV that got Huntington looking at this technology in the first place. During the summer of 2009, he watched an RQ-4 Global Hawk Remotely Piloted Aircraft fly over Maine’s Brunswick Naval Air Station. He started digging around online and found that hobbyists were making miniature versions of drone planes. “I remember exactly where we were. We were in the Fireside Lounge [in Cotter Union] and I was just like watching all these videos online and I was like, ‘Dan you gotta see this, this is so cool,’” recalled Huntington.

Opalacz, an STS and geoscience double major, remembers that day too. “Immediately I thought, ‘Wow, this could be really useful as a research tool for Colby professors and scientists and students,’” he said. And Opalacz had his own research goal: to use the plane to capture images of the tidal river at Popham Beach and, over time, document the erosion patterns there.

The two took the idea to Professor James Fleming, director of STS at Colby. “I asked them to cross their t’s and dot their i’s and explain the significance and provide a vision and measurable milestones,” he said. With the detailed proposal in hand, Fleming agreed to serve as their adviser for a yearlong capstone project. But in order to make it happen, they needed money. So Huntington and Opalacz applied for a Goldfarb Center research grant, which they received. They did lots of online research, bought parts, and had a plane in the air before the end of the fall semester. But that, the pair would learn, was just the beginning.

They encountered two major issues: technological glitches and crashes. “I’ve crashed a lot,” said Opalacz. “I’ve destroyed some planes.” But as long as the components aren’t damaged, a broken foam plane is an easy fix, they say. Troubleshooting can be more time consuming. “We get to the field, everything’s working, and you’re like, ‘Oh, the motor’s not.’ … Throughout this project in general we’ve just had to do tons of troubleshooting—going back to the drawing board.”
Drone 2
Opalacz, left, and Huntington speak about their project to enthusiastic students at an after-school program in Waterville.

Since a major goal was to make a UAV that other students could use to take aerial pictures for research projects, graduating seniors Opalacz and Huntington needed to do everything they could to minimize glitches for students who would inherit the plane. They added a parachute to help dampen the impact, thereby protecting the electronic components, and they downsized—creating a new plane half the size—so the lighter plane wouldn’t land (or crash) as hard. All of their troubleshooting is documented on their blog (www.uavbuild.blogspot.com) so that future students can learn from their experiences.

Throughout the year Tucker Gorman ’11J worked with Huntington and Opalacz, and this spring he prepared to become the go-to person for students and faculty looking to use the plane in their research. Gorman will be available this fall to teach the next round of students to troubleshoot and to fly. Fleming expects demand. “There’s a general enthusiasm and a sense of brainstorming what’s next,” he said.

The first to jump on the opportunity, and offer support in the form of additional grant money, was Associate Professor of Biology Catherine Bevier. She plans to use the plane to map and study a 15-acre wetland in Norridgewock, Maine. Bevier hopes to survey amphibians and other wildlife in the area. “The fly-over and aerial photography would also give a baseline for vegetation and landscape,” she said. “It’d be very cool to do a yearly survey and see exactly how this whole wetland area changes over time.” Beyond that, the owners of the land are considering building an educational trail that will be open to the public, and the aerial photography will be crucial in mapping the route.

Other professors and students are considering uses for the plane in their research. “We really think it will let kids sort of dream about what kind of research they want to do,” said Opalacz, “because they’re not going to be constricted by raising thousands of dollars to hire a conventional aerial photographer. They can just take our plane out.” Added Huntington: “Pretty much every professor we talk to in the sciences is really excited about applications of this for their students.”

Fleming is among them. He called the UAV project “the best student project I have ever seen.”

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  • On August 25, 2010, William C. Winslow wrote:
    Hmm. I wonder if a UAV student reseach project will include a surveillance flight over the roof of Roberts Union. In my day (53-57) planes from the Brunswick Naval Air Stations regularly photographed coeds sunbathing there. I once saw a 35mm proof sheet.