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February 5th, 2015

We were hoping this post would include details on our research trip to Belize during January.  Unfortunately, a team member was in an accident, which caused us to postpone our trip until this spring.  However, we do have some information to share on preparations to date and future plans.

Equipment Builds

Plenty of hours were spent preparing our equipment for the trip.  Much of time was spent on completing the assembly of our “Game of Drones” build, affectionately known as Motley (see figure below).


I designed the dome/lid (white, seen in the middle of Motley) and had it printed on a 3D printer in our Center for Design and Fabrication.  An idea from our friends at UAV-America suggests that we add a bit of plasti-dip to the dome edge and inner rim of the frame to secure the fitting, since the lid does not quite snap into place.  All of the components were oriented and re-seated within this hardier frame.  The newly-combined GPS receiver and magnetometer can now be mounted externally on the dome (note: the GPS/magnetometer are not shown in the above image).  We are able to fit two LiPo (lithium polymer) batteries inside the cavity and we await warmer weather – or a trip to the indoor gymnasium – to test Motley’s flight characteristics.

We also invested additional time building our Aquacopter UAV (see picture below).  The Aquacopter is a durable frame that, as the name implies, is specially built for water environments.  The frame and components arrived in early December, not leaving much time to build or modify.  With help from UAV-America and additional hours in our lab,  we were to get the motors generating lift and the quad up in the air.  However, we are still experiencing irregular flight characteristics, primarily with unpredictable and unresponsive yaw motion.  The motors may be slightly pitched in their mounting, which would cause these issues.

Future plans include adding shims under the motors, performing test flights to find the cause of the problem (and therefore fix the yaw), and also determine if the Aquacopter can actually float. This would give it a significant edge over Motley in our data collection, because being able to retrieve the quad from a water landing is crucial.



Travel Preparations

We also spent time reading and understanding FAA regulations governing what types of batteries are allowed on commercial flights.  Specifically, we reviewed the Delta Airlines baggage restrictions to understand what size and quantity LiPo batteries we can pack and transport in our carry on bags.  As Christine writes:

I’ve looked at the restrictions on carrying on lithium batteries and the only restrictions I can find are that you can only have two batteries that are “large”, or between 8 and 25 grams of lithium and between 100 and 160 watt hours. None of our batteries are anywhere close to those restrictions, so according the guidelines you sent me we can take as many of our batteries as we want to. These can’t be damaged and must be put in their original packaging (or, if we don’t have that, then we just need to insulate the battery terminals from metal or other batteries). Also, we have to make sure that there won’t be a lot of pressure on the batteries at any time. All the batteries must be in carry on.

We are taking extra precautions to print and adhere to these regulations, and plan to adhere a print-out with an inventory of batteries stored in each battery safe bag to the outside of our carry-on luggage.  Hopefully, this will save time and confusion as we proceed through the airport security area!

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October 4th, 2014

The fall semester at Smith College is starting up again and with it our research on mangrove protection in Belize using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). I’ll start this blog out with a brief introduction to our research since this is our first post. Our team at Smith College has been researching UAVs such as quadcopters and fixed wing models (see pictures below).

                       quad fixed wing

 UAVs have been in the news lately as a very controversial military technology. However, research is being done on the possibility of their use in areas as diverse as agriculture, package delivery (see link to Amazon’s ambitious plan for drones:, and search and rescue. Our research is looking into using UAVs for environmental conservation. We are exploring using UAVs to capture low aerial photography in marine environments. Normally, this imagery be obtained by renting a manned aircraft. As you can imagine, using a small quadcopter or fixed wing would be much easier and more cost-effective (not to mention more environmentally friendly). This January, we are planning to bring a few UAVs down to Belize, to establish a baseline survey for environmental planning. This imagery can then be used to test how effective regulations and protected areas are.

This semester, we have started making preparations for the trip. We tentatively plan to go to Belize in January. Currently we are researching regulations on UAVs in Belize. We have a contact with Conservation Drones and intend to adopt their methods. Conservation Drones has done work similar to what we are hoping to do in several countries, including Belize. Additionally, we have been using image processing software to make 3D orthophotos from images captured. The following is an image made from aerial photos of a nearby farm.


This software is very good and would be useful for taking hundreds of images from a flight and converting them into one working image of an area. Over time, we hope to get several of these orthographic images over an extended period of time in Belize. We would then be able to monitor the degradation (or regrowth) of affected environments.

We will have more updates for you soon!

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September 30th, 2014

January 2015 seems like it’s a long way away, doesn’t it?

It feels like there are weeks and weeks to go before we have to pack up our flying gear and head down to Belize to start aerially surveying the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. But before we know it, it will be January. It’ll be time to escape frigid western Massachusetts and kick our research into gear – and for that, we’ve already begun preparations.

Though surveys of the soft coral have been performed in the past, we’re hoping to obtain high-resolution imagery using UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the training required to safely fly a UAV is far less than that for complete pilot licensure. Also decreased are the costs associated with equipment and fuel requirements for a UAV in comparison to a full-size, manned vehicle. Finally, the quality – and quantity – of imagery obtainable with a personally controlled, low-flying aerial device is vastly increased due to the lower altitudes and number of passes that can be made by the vehicle.

The potential applications for low-altitude aerial imaging technology in geological and biological survey work are numerous, this particular job being just one example where an eye-in-the-sky really does provide a much-needed overview of the habitat just off the coast of Belize.

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The medical advances being made today with sensors reminds me of when, as a kid, I watched with rapt attention the movie Fantastic Voyage.

Sensors can monitor implants as they heal or detect early signs of organ rejection after a transplant. A sensor in the human brain could even help people control a prosthesis or use assistive technologies such as wheelchairs.

blog sensor

The human sensor industry is in its infancy, is this something you could contribute to?

The advantage of being able to constantly collect data about someone’s health would keep hospital costs down by catching diseases early and helping the ill or elderly manage their own health between doctors’ visits.

More about the advances of this technology

Who knows? In a decade, we may all be wearing microchips.  After all, this microchip technology already exists in many of our pets.

blog dog

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We’re sending students from Smith College to Belize this winter!  Using low altitude aerial photography they will collect and analyze data to help conserve and protect the mangrove swamp and reefs in the area.  The team will build and modify the unmanned vehicles and then fly them to get the data.  We hope to leave behind an accurate and affordable means to help the citizens manage their precious natural resources.  Look for updates leading up to the trip in January.

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