Madison College students go to flight school building unmanned drones

May 15, 2013

From “MATC students go to flight school building unmanned drones” — Hovering just feet above the gym floor at Madison Area Technical College: what some see as the future of flight and others see as a scary vision of a future without privacy.

At first, it looks like a rudimentary model aircraft — two aluminum tubes flared in a V-shape with eight tiny propellers spaced evenly atop the tubes and four padded wiffle balls below as landing gear. It has powers — remotely scanning and recording product labels — that have businesses drooling at the possibilities for doing warehouse inventory. It’s operated by Gregory Kolaske of Fitchburg.

“This is a hobby gone crazy, a hobby gone wild,” said the soon-to-be-graduate in supervisory management and industrial maintenance. “The sophistication is amazing. It’s cutting-edge.”

It’s also controversial. The craft Kolaske was flying, part of a class of planes called unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, has generated such widespread privacy concerns that it has brought together state Republicans and Democrats in opposition.

Last week a bipartisan group of state legislators introduced a bill to require police to obtain a search warrant before collecting evidence with a drone and disqualify evidence gathered by a drone if a warrant wasn’t obtained first.

“Drones are no longer multimillion-dollar machines and can now be bought by anyone at hobby shops,” said Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison. “Our laws must catch up to technology to ensure the public’s right to privacy.”

Peaceful purposes

Despite their infamy as instruments of war abroad and privacy invaders at home, drones are seen by some as a massively expanding technology for use by businesses, researchers and government agencies for peaceful, non-controversial means.

Real estate companies could offer advance tours of high-rise buildings. Police departments could conduct missing-person searches in remote wilderness areas. Environmental groups could deploy them each spring for population counts of threatened species.

UW-Madison researchers have, after obtaining permits, found the craft extremely effective in monitoring coastal hurricanes and collecting environmental data on streams in rural Wisconsin. An industry group projects growth in spending in the technology to total nearly $90 billion in the next decade worldwide, the bulk of it in the U.S.

Thomas Kaminski, a former NASA computer engineer and instructor of industrial maintenance at MATC, sensed the growing opportunities in the field. This spring, for the first time he offered a class for students interested in designing and flying the craft.

Three local businesses — JH Findorff & Son builders, Sanchez Industrial Design, a Middleton environmental monitoring firm, and Matrix Product Development, a Sun Prairie technology firm — donated money for materials and equipment. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers of Madison gave an additional $1,000 educational grant.

“This technology is important,” Kaminski said. “It gets you into the air like a bird.”

What’s new is the ability to attach high-tech gadgets to the planes that essentially allow them to fly themselves, usually at lower altitudes than piloted craft can reach, using computer-generated models. While aloft, they can collect a vast array of data, whether through high-tech cameras or sensors.

Another change: the cost. Kaminski held up a half-dollar-sized black chip called a microcontroller that serves as the devices’ navigation and guidance system.

“Thirty five years ago, this would have cost half a million dollars,” he said. “Now, it’s $50.”

‘Spectacular crashes’

The 12 students in the class worked in teams to build four drones, splitting up duties that included heavy doses of electronics and computer programming plus the mechanical tasks of constructing and repairing the planes.

Their task was to design each plane with a specific industry task in mind. For example, the plane Kolaske was flying on Friday was rigged up with a product scanner to take inventory remotely.

They took advantage of freely available software online.

“It’s amazing how much work people have done to make this software available to everyone,” said Bernard Brauer of Middleton, who’s graduating this week with a degree in electrical engineering technology. “I’m taken aback by that.”

On Friday, the class took their creations to the college’s gym to go flying. The Federal Aviation Administration currently bans flying drones for commercial purposes or within three miles of an airport, forcing the students to stay inside. It might have been for the best.

“We’re all fairly green flyers,” Brauer said shortly after a classmate’s drone crashed with a fairly spectacular thud into one of the gym’s walls. They created a “wall of flame” to display all the mangled parts from flights gone wrong.

By last Friday, most of the flights got off the ground and landed safely, a sign they’d overcome their early struggles.

“We’ve had some spectacular crashes,” said Matt Filutowicz of Madison. “It takes months to gather the confidence and skill to do this well.”

The planes are designed to be hybrids, able to be controlled remotely like traditional model aircraft but also programmed for autopilot with no human at the controls.

None of the class’ craft quite got up to piloting itself, though the plane designed by Brauer and partner Rahim Errouhi of Fitchburg came close.

The students reported learning a lot about the expanding technology and having plenty of fun along the way. They’re not likely to be able to use their skills in the near future, as the FAA isn’t expected to lift its current ban on drones for commercial uses until 2015.



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