Secreted in a Weatherly attic, a team of high school students, code name Aeroplex, spend one evening each week at the cutting edge of technology working on a project to design a drone-based system to survey crop pests.
The crop pest in the cross-hairs of the Aeroplex team at the Weatherly Institute for Robotics and Engineering is the European Corn Borer. This inchlong moth, an invasive species from Europe, was first detected in Massachusetts in the early 1900s, and has since spread across much of North America.
The ECB lays droplet shaped eggs on the underside of the leaves of the corn plant and develops into caterpillars that bore holes in the plant, causing them to fall over. Farmers are turning to genetically engineered corn, which is resistant to the European Corn Borer.
Alternately, farmers control the borer by spraying with pesticides. But they need a way of surveying their fields to determine where, when and how much pesticides should be sprayed.
That's the problem that teams across the country are addressing as part of the Real World Design Challenge, a sophisticated high school level engineering design challenge competition.
"The Real World Design Challenge was created eight years ago as a joint project between manufacturers, universities, school districts and states," said Steve Goodale, executive director of the Weatherly Institute for Robotics and Engineering. "Every state has teams. We are one of maybe six competition teams in Pennsylvania.
"This year we are designing an unmanned aircraft, a drone if you will, to go to the coordinates of a field and examine the field for damage by European Corn Borers."
Goodale said the project involves designing an aircraft to locate and reach the field, sweep the rows of developing corn, and collect data on the incidence of ECB eggs, all while dealing with limitations on weight, fuel, data collection technology, logistics and costs.
"It demands quite a bit," Goodale said. "You have to get the craft there, so we use GPS to guide it."
To overcome the trade-offs of range, power and data collection, the Aeroplex team opted to design a dual-craft system: a mothership with a piggy-backed drone. The mothership carries much of the weight and transports the dual craft up to 150 miles to the field. The flying-saucer-shaped mothership will have hydrogen fuel cells and flexible solar cells for both powering itself and recharging the drone.
Once the mothership is positioned, the battery-operated drone takes off and begins its field survey. When its battery begins to run low, it is programmed to return to the mothership for recharging. Both aircraft are designed with radar collision avoidance systems as required by the FAA.
As the drone sweeps over each row of corn, it will use stereoscopic cameras to detect signs of the corn borer on the corn. "They have to detect where on the corn the ECB is actually located, in the juncture of the corn stems, at the leaves or at the top of the corn," Goodale said.
"It is a complex project," he said. "So we have to break it down into responsibilities." Two team members, Anthony Cundro and Anthony Perno, both 16 years old and studying at the Hazleton Area Career Center, are working on the design of the components for the actual craft.
They are designing the lifting propellers for the drone using a $1 million software package called Cero 2.0. They received the software free for the project. Ironically, the Institute had to ask for donations of a suitable PC to run the program and have not been able to receive a machine that is fast enough to properly run the program.
The project is part of a complete business plan. The team has been putting together costs for materials, production and operation, and the development of support structures, marketing and training. It's not just rocket science.
So, why are these high school students part of this after-school workshop?
"It's something that could help us for the rest of our lives," Anthony Cundro said.
"I'm becoming exposed to aerospace engineering," Demetrios Carellas said.
"I'm interested in becoming a doctor," Alexander Ortiz said. "This is opening me to a broader field like medical engineering."
The Challenge began in December 2013 and concludes at the end of March 2014. If team Aeroplex is successful, they may qualify for a $10,000 grant to build the project.
But win or lose, Goodale is elated. "I've got what I've hoped for, kids working on design processes, and they are coming up with really cool ideas."
To learn more about the Weatherly Institute for Robotics and Engineering, contact Steve Goodale at email@example.com, or (570) 401-7813.