OAKHURST — In less than the time it takes to graduate from high school, some local students have gone from making robots out of Legos to building drones and mounting an aerial competition with a real-world, search and rescue theme.
Functional Applications of Aerial Robotics: Search And Rescue is a student run-competition, according to robotics teacher Ryan Collings. The school-focused event takes place on May 20 at Yosemite High and is open to everyone.
The origins of the unique competition date back just three short years ago, to when Collings offered a course on Integrating Robotics Into Physical Science, also known as Robotics I, using Lego Mindstorm kits. The freshman-focused class meets the high school graduation requirement for physical science.
With demonstrated interest from students, the class continued its second year by participateing in the MATE competition in advanced aquatic robotics. Mountain Home School and Glacier Academy had already been doing the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) competition for about seven years when YHS decided to enter the fray as part of Robotics 2, says Collings. Robotics 2 was also a hit. Soon, students started asking if they could take Robotics 3. For Collings, the answer was easy.
“If kids are asking to be challenged more, we should see what we can do about meeting that challenge.”
The students were really interested in drones, Collings says, so they looked at drone options for what the class could be. They liked the MATE format of competition because it includes the functional application of robots.
“They always have you doing some real-world activity, even if it’s a simulation.”
The more they researched possibilities, the more students wondered if there was a similar competition for drones. The closest thing they could find was in Australia, and even then, the criteria wasn’t exactly what they wanted. Their conclusion, again, was simple.
If they couldn’t find a competition, they would create one.
The motivated students built five drones from the ground up. Collings says they have learned everything from the ins and outs of flight control boards to how the drones behave in response to pilot input.
Once the drones were in the air, students started talking about a theme for competition. The Robotics 3 class this year has 12 students, including two girls and 10 boys, ranging from sophomore through senior.
“We kept coming back to search and rescue. We spent about a month brainstorming and researching and seeing what has been done and what ideas might work, in terms of drones in search and rescue.”
Fortunately, Collings points out, they had a secret weapon in the form of a recent robotics alumnus.
“We have the benefit of having Tanner Meeks on our side.”
Meeks, YHS class of 2016, also graduated from the Madera County Search and Rescue Academy’s program last year, fulfilling a dream along with his requirement for a high school senior project. Meeks received an International Baccalaureate degree and was awarded a scholarship to Fresno State, where he now studies engineering.
“Tanner was willing to help and since he has the ability to bridge search and rescue, engineering, and competition, he was integral to us in terms of understanding what would and what wouldn’t work.”
Out of a series of Skype meetings with Meeks and continued research grew a competition. Ultimately, students constructed a 19-page manual for an aerial robotics competition with a format based on the MATE competition.
The resulting competition is FAAR: Functional Applications of Aerial Robots. This inaugural theme is Search and Rescue, and the FAAR competition will overtake campus on May 20.
The event features three levels of competition.
Hyperion is for drones that have no camera, no sensors, and no GPS. Pilots are flying only line-of-sight. This level, Hyperion, is named for the tallest tree in the world.
The next level of competition is Cirrus, for drones with a camera system but no other sensors. This level, Cirrus, is named for the highest cloud in the world,
The most complex level of competition, Griffin, is designed for drones that have a camera system and at least one type of sensor, such as GPS or obstacle avoidance. This level is named for the highest flying bird in the world, Collings says. The Griffin vulture has been spotted flying at an elevation of 37,000 feet.
FAAR is split into three events: Speed and Agility, Trail, and Campsite.
The first event is Speed and Agility, set to be held on the YHS football field. It’s basically a fun, fast obstacle course for drones, Collings outlines, where pilots can push themselves on agility and speed.
“It’s just fun to watch, and a great spectator event that’s open to the public. We will have netting for safety and people are welcome to come and sit and see what’s going on.”
The second event is Trail, held on the lower practice field. Trail simulates a situation where a hiker who was on a known trail has been reported missing. One of the first measures taken by SAR in the event of a missing person is to determine whether or not they are stranded on the known trail.
“One of the ideas we came up with was that in search and rescue, you could clear a trail more quickly with a drone,” meaning that a drone could easily ascertain whether or not a person was on the trail.
To simulate a trail, teams will have to fly their drones through a series of hoops representing the path a trail would take. At the end, the drones will find a subject (or object) to represent an incapacitated hiker.
“Once they have identified the subject, they will fly back to where the pilots are. The pilots will attach a small device with a GPS signal, known as a simulated personal locator beacon, and drop that with the subject.”
Depending on the level of competition, a drone in the Trail portion of events needs to identify what would be helpful to the subject. This could include, for instance, a Mylar blanket, a life straw for clean water, or other small objects that could be carried and dropped for an immediate positive impact on an incapacitated person.
The third and final event is called Campsite, held in the upper gym.
“We are going to turn the inside of the gym into a landscape that will simulate several different remote hunting camps. The idea is that teams will deploy their drone, and investigate camp sights in an attempt to positively identify the campsite of the missing hunter by noting the gear that is in the campsite. So they are looking at what is in the staged campsite and matching those objects to a list we provide.”
In this real-world scenario, SAR could be looking at what a missing person or persons were they wearing, which helps with identification.
Once they have positively documented the campsite they will be required to back out of it and triangulate the position on a map, based on features like peaks and rivers. Then, Collings continues, they will pilot the drones back into the campsite and identify what gear from the list is missing. “Is this someone who was gone for an hour and didn’t take anything with them? Or is this someone who is very well-equipped and hopefully has a higher chance for a positive outcome?”
Finally, they will look for evidence of direction of travel.
The San Diego Air and Space Museum has contributed three sets of tickets, with a pair for the winners of each level of competition. The class was started with finances provided by the Yosemite School District, Collings says, and Oakhurst Rotary has been a supporter as well.
“We are really proud of what the kids have done. We have great support, but it all lives and dies on the students showing up and working hard and they really have.”
Registration for FAAR is open now.