Concordia Oversees Drone-Building Challenge

L-R: Jamie Van Overschelde with Flame Wheel and Ben Bogart with Blue Heron

These days flying drones is really popular, but ever thought of building one?

Concordia juniors Jamie Van Overschelde and Benjamin Bogart, led by Dr. Thelma Berquó, associate professor of physics, participated in a challenge to build and fly quadcopters. Oversight for the program is organized by Berquó and the two undergrads. Dr. Matthew ArchMiller, assistant professor of physics, led a second Concordia team.

Van Overschelde and Bogart, serving as tech advisors for the Minnesota Space Grant Consortium (MnSGC) Intercollegiate Quadcopter Challenge, helped the competing teams from nine other colleges build and troubleshoot their own drones to be used in the competition.

The MnSGC is led from the Aerospace Engineering and Mechanics department at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (UMTC) which funded the 2019-20 challenge.

MnSGC is part of the NASA-funded National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program established by Congress in 1988. The program is designed to enhance student and faculty capability at colleges and universities in Minnesota in STEM areas of interest to NASA – in this particular case, for un-crewed RC multi-rotor drones, also known as quadcopters. Concordia will lead it again next year, so the college will have led it the two years of its existence.

Once only available for military purposes, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone has become increasingly popular for citizen and business use. A quadcopter is a specific term used to refer to a drone controlled by four rotors.

Nine teams participated in building and flying a drone capable of navigating and exploring an unknown environment by collecting data and physical samples. Everyone was supplied the same kit to build their basic drone. The quadcopter kit, readily available, was an assembly of many different parts from different manufactures so there was no all-encompassing guide on how to put everything together.

“As tech advisors, it was our responsibility to build and test the kit before the teams and develop a tutorial for them to follow,” said Bogart.

Van Overschelde and Bogart also experimented with adding different sensors, cameras and other components to the drone so that they could advise the teams on how to approach customizing their drones for the competition. In order to make sure teams met all the requirements and deadlines, they conducted biweekly meetings with all the teams via Zoom.

According to the MnSGC, “the building process also involves some mechanical design and fabrication, giving the students experience with computer-aided design (CAD) software for design, documentation, and (potentially) fabrication with 3-D printing and laser cutting. In addition, students had to learn microcontroller programming and integration of electronics, sensors, actuators, and data-logging to ensure that their modifications function properly.”

In February Van Overschelde traveled to Washington, D.C., with Professor James Flaten from the U of M for the 30th anniversary of the NASA Space Grant program representing the state of Minnesota at the Space Grant convention.

“Students and professors presented Space Grant-funded projects they were working on at a convention and I presented the quadcopter project,” said Van Overschelde.

After the convention Van Overschelde and Flaten visited with Minnesota Senate and House of Representative offices to discuss the NASA Space Grant and how it provides students the ability to explore different projects and opportunities they may not have been able to otherwise.

“It was a great experience and I am grateful for the opportunity,” said Van Overschelde.

Originally all teams were supposed to get together March 27-28 to participate in the fly-off, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus.

“We have attempted to salvage the challenge by instead having teams produce a video documenting what they have learned, what they still would like to add to their drone and what advice they would give another team trying to pick up this project at a later date,” said Bogart.

“We have also thrown around the possibility of having an optional fly-off next fall, but have not made any official plans,” he added.