By TOM HESSE Reprinted with permission from the Daily Sitka Sentinel The Mt. Edgecumbe InvenTeam has prototypes and a pilot ready for their UAV search and rescue project, but the group still has some work to do before their invention makes its way into the equipment arsenal of Sitka Mountain Rescue. In the fall, the Mt. Edgecumbe InvenTeam got to work on a search and rescue invention funded by a $10,000 grant from MIT. Since then the team has been designing and building parts for a pair of remote control unmanned aerial vehicles that could benefit search and rescue operations in Southeast. The team has built two prototypes, a quadcopter and a hexcopter, the names indicating the number of rotors. The plan is to have the machines capable for a number of operations including carrying an infrared camera for searching, and also the ability to drop a first aid kit or radio to a stranded person. Trevor Creed, a senior from Kotzebue, is leading the design team. At the team’s mid-grant review this week he said the project is coming along nicely but it has not been without challenges. “I like where we are because we have two prototypes. They’re so close to running. We just have to get the programming done,” Creed said. The team has succeeded in getting one of their prototypes in the air but didn’t succeed in returning it safely to the ground. The first flight ended in a crash, but Creed is hoping to have the prototypes back in the air by the end of the week.
In order to learn to fly the device, students have been practicing on a flight simulator, which Sitka Mountain Rescue will also use for practice when the Mt. Edgecumbe students finish the project. Thomas Ervin, a senior from Tok, has emerged as the team’s pilot, thanks to his penchant for digital simulations. “Originally, how I was picked to be the pilot is I was naturally good at it, which many attribute to all the time I spent playing video games,” Ervin quipped. Over the last several months the team has been switching components and trying to find the right combination of motors and battery life and propeller size that will give them the most amount of lift with the longest flight time. “We could probably carry a small baby,” Creed joked of the UAV’s carrying capacity. More likely the UAV will be carrying a $5,000 infrared camera donated by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, which Creed said is sophisticated enough to see the heat left over from recent footprints. Sitka Mountain Rescue captain Don Kluting was at the presentation Monday night at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and asked about the possibility of using the UAV to carry a rope that can be used as an access line in case someone falls through the ice in a difficult-to-reach location. “There’s a number of possibilities for it. For instance, looking at remote locations like a cliff face and being able to visualize it before we send someone down,” Kluting said. Kluting also mentioned using the device to search avalanche fields or using the infrared camera to quickly search an area. “I don’t know that we totally know the full extent of the possibilities, and it might take a little bit to find out what the full range of possibilities of this could be,” Kluting said. “From my standpoint it’s really exciting to see the enthusiasm that these young folks have and the energy that they bring in trying to find new ways to help with search and rescue.” The UAV will also have a forward-mounted camera that will stream video back to the pilot. This tweak is part of what separates the Mt. Edgecumbe project from a standard DIY quadcopter. By attaching the camera, the pilot will be able to fly the UAV out of sight of the operator. And should the expensive equipment fly too far and not return, Creed said the team is working on a solution for that as well. “We’re going to put a GPS on it so that if it does crash then they can actually find it later,” Creed said. This summer, the Mt. Edgecumbe students will fly to Massachusetts to present their invention at MIT. The grant does not cover travel costs, so the team incorporated a business angle to their project to raise money for travel. Senior Anthony Lekanof, who is in charge of fundraising, said the group has raised enough money for six students and some project advisers to make the trip, but they are still looking for more funding. Creed said he’s confident the project will be finished in plenty of time for the presentation at MIT. “We’re definitely going to get these done but we wish we were more ahead of it,” he said. Still, he said it’s been rewarding to watch the project come together. “The best part has been watching everything come together and seeing everyone working on their part of it and then seeing those parts come together.”