Education, Inspiration

Drones for Conservation: A DIY Effort to Help Protect the Planet


As someone who works in both filmmaking and conservation, I’m at a happy crossroads when the needs of both worlds align. On my last Antarctic campaign, for example, we folded the toy-like DJI Phantom 3s into our complement of production gear (much to the dismay of our production budget, which barely tolerated an extra backup camera, much less something as exotic as a drone). We brought the UAVs for filming beauty shots that would later go into our network television show, but they were quickly re-purposed in situ for evidence-gathering on our mission to help save blue sharks.

Fishermen were deploying 15-mile-long sections of driftnet that killed everything they touched, including the sharks, which sometimes ejected their own stomachs after becoming entangled in the nets. The little Phantom 3s braved hours on end, on missions that tasked them with gathering critical photo and video evidence. Along with a complement of ship-to-ship photography, the drone-gathered evidence later resulted in a historical first: the Chinese government disbanded a multi-million-dollar commercial fishing fleet. The Phantom 3s turned out to be not so toy-like, after all.

Conservation drones on the high seas
Conservation drones on the high seas. Photo: Sea Shepherd

After returning home, I began to look for a UAV solution that could do more – cover more distance, stay in the air longer, carry different payloads and sensor packages – something that could be an overall more effective tool than a Phantom 3. I flew to rural Kansas to meet a company that was developing a rail-launched flying wing. I attended drone conferences. I flew to Florida to meet another company that was developing waterproof, ship-deployed UAVs. I met engineers that were building UAVs like the Predator, and people who had defected to quirky startups to build drones for civilians. I even found a few enthusiast groups around the country that are repurposing RC aircraft to become long-range UAVs. If only we could all be this guy.

On the expo floors, I met a lot of impressive companies who turned out to be selling empty promises — they had pretty drones that couldn’t fly. One of the coolest drones I found that did fly was a million-dollar fixed-wing, vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft that was flown by a team that would rent itself to me at the “non-profit friendly” rate of $10,000 a day — a cost that was unfortunately orders of magnitude beyond what I could offer.

The FireFLY6 VTOL Drone
The FireFLY6 VTOL Drone

The closest (realistic) VTOL UAV solution I found was a V22 Osprey-like drone that was being developed by a small company in New Hampshire (above). I explained to them that we needed to be able to reliably take off and land from the deck of a ship at sea; that we wanted to fly over the horizon; and that we needed some sort of real-time, or near real-time, FPV solution for tracking the progress of the drone — a very tall order, I know. In the end, it didn’t work out (they were still prototyping), and I began to give up hope. Surprisingly, no one seemed keen on dumping a few hundred-thousand dollars into buying or developing a UAV platform that would fly non-profit missions — from a business perspective, this project benefitted no one, had no ROI, no business plan, and was generally a waste of time.

Introducing Dr. Chuck

During one last bout of inspired Googling, I came across a guy who is casually referred to by students and friends as “Dr. Chuck.” Dr. Chuck isn’t a typical engineer, if there is such a thing. He talks a million miles a minute — most of the time about how we’re all hurtling forward in time and subject to something akin to Douglas Adams’ “infinite improbability drive.” In between spirited discussions about psychology and humanity’s general state of affairs, he laments over the woes of today’s academic system. He’s a conservationist at heart, having spent many years defending parts of the continental United States, among other things. He’s now at Washington State University, where he leads a team of undergraduates who are developing a UAV that will be used to track an animal I had never heard of – the Painted Dog, a threatened canine that lives in Africa.

African Painted Dogs. Photo: Will Burrard-Lucas
Photo: Will Burrard-Lucas

The aircraft Dr. Chuck’s team is developing is a 22-pound electric-powered glider with a 13-foot wingspan, now in its third iteration. During the previous semester’s final test flight, they set out to fly the aircraft 80 miles in one flight; in the end, the aircraft transited 140 miles and still had power to spare. They had designed it to be inexpensive (to cater to non-profits); the team could build one in the lab, from scratch, in about three days. I was intrigued, so Dr. Chuck invited me to WSU to learn more.

Dr. Chuck and some of his team.

Meeting the Team

I don’t know what I expected to find in Pullman, WA, but it definitely wasn’t rolling fields of wheat — I had to double check that the Alaskan Air Q400 I had arrived on hadn’t accidentally ended up somewhere in Kansas. Nestled among the golden hills is WSU, a brick-clad campus that doubles Pullman’s population of 25,000 when it’s in session. The drone team is made up of myriad engineers — electrical engineers (EEs), mechanical engineers (MEs), and computer science students (CSs). It took me a couple of hours to get up to speed with their jargon — they refer to each other as “ME” and “EE” – as in, “Let’s get an EE in here to explain the phased di-pole antenna placement.” In the lab, I had asked Ryan, a lanky and upbeat student who had been on the UAV team the previous semester, if we could get an EE to look at one of the batteries we were working with. He looked a bit taken aback before replying, “But I’m an EE.”

Taking Flight

This weekend’s mission was to get the drone in the air — this would be the first time this semester’s team had flown it. We spent the first night in the composites lab, a cavernous, dusty space with giant rolls of fiberglass and carbon fiber on racks (I had no idea that’s where fiberglass came from), all sitting among gallons and gallons of epoxy, a sweet smelling chemical substance that serves as a bonding agent. The team needed to finalize the battery placement and rebuild the motor mount, which had broken during the previous weekend’s flight attempt, when the aircraft had done less flying and more falling.

The next morning, with everything prepped and ready, we ventured out of town and climbed to the top of a nearby hill, alone among hundreds of rolling acres of harvested wheat. The team chatted excitedly as we made our way up the hill — most of the students from last semester had graduated or moved on, including their only pilot. As far as most were concerned, this was new territory.

As the team finished rubber-banding the wings onto the fuselage and plugging in the batteries, everyone slowly backed away from the aircraft, as if it were now a force to be reckoned with. One brave student hung on as they began to test the motor, however, to make sure everything was working.

Ryan, below with the laptop, thrust the remote controller in my direction with a wry smile. “Did Dr. Chuck tell you you’re going to fly today?”

No, he hadn’t.

I have a lot of remote-control aviation experience behind me, but I’m not a huge fan of flying experimental aircraft. I had once been in a similar situation with a huge eight-rotor drone that was being developed in China. I had traveled to another remote destination and had had the two-foot-wide controller thrust into my hands then, too, by an eager-but-nervous-looking engineer who didn’t speak English. The pilot hadn’t shown up and no one knew how to contact him, least of all the engineer. On that flight, for some unknown reason, every input on the controller had precisely the opposite effect it was supposed to, which made flying that particular aircraft much more riveting than it needed to be. That was exciting enough; I didn’t assume flying a 13-foot-wide glider without ailerons (the small cutouts on the wings that allow an aircraft to roll) was going to be a cakewalk.

Halfway through the fuselage build.

Remember how I said they could make one of these in three days? The fuselage — the main body of the aircraft — is created by laying epoxy-laden fiberglass into a two-piece mold. The resulting product looks kind of like a medical cast. They trim down the two pieces and join them together to complete the initial part of the build. The foam for the wing is hand-cut using something called a “hot wire” – a piece of metal that looks like a guitar string, which is hooked up to something that looks like a car battery. Needless to say, it takes hours of work to manufacture the aircraft; they guesstimate that it takes about six hours to create the fuselage alone. While we were in the lab, I got to try my hand at “wetting out” the fiberglass, a process where you comb epoxy back and forth across the fiberglass material until it’s saturated enough to lay into the mold.

Wetting out the fiberglass.

As I stood there with the controller in hand, this is what I was thinking about — how many hours would it take to rebuild this thing? The previous team had left this semester’s team with the parting knowledge that a decent headwind would help them get the lift the aircraft needed to get off the ground. The most muscle-bound student in the group, Zac, was the designated thrower (though Kirsten, another engineer on the team, had reportedly been a collegiate javelin thrower). Fully loaded, the aircraft weighs about 22 pounds, 70 percent of that due to the hefty batteries it carries to achieve its heroic endurance.

Testing throwing with a dummy airframe.
Test throwing a dummy airframe.


Zac picked up the aircraft and waited patiently for the winds to shift direction; I stood off to the side with the controller in hand. Ryan manned the laptop that controlled the aircraft’s flight controller, 3DR’s Pixhawk. Ryan was uploading a waypoint to the onboard computer so the aircraft could autonomously return to our base camp in case things got out of hand. As if everyone knew what was coming, they raised their cellphones to document the event. A gust came up, someone yelled “Go!,” and I throttled up. Zac eased into a kind of galloping run he had practiced after sitting in the wheat and watching YouTube videos of javelin throwers. Just as he released the plane, the wind died.

The plane spent a gut-wrenching second on an upward trajectory before it pitched down and planted itself ten feet away in the ground. There was a collective disgruntled sigh as everyone rushed over to assess the damage. It was suddenly shaping up to be another flightless weekend. The initial assessment was that the carbon fiber prop was half-destroyed, but otherwise everything seemed to be intact. A relative victory, all things considered.

Assessing the new prop.

The major point of failure was determined to be the pitch of the propeller — it was too high for what we were trying to do. It was designed for high-speed cruising, not creating low speed thrust for getting off the ground. Everyone conferred on possible solutions, then half the team returned to the lab to dig up some lower-pitched props, leaving the rest of us up on the hill. One of the team’s advisors, a guy who helps build military drones, picked up a nearby stalk of wheat and showed me how you could extract the wheat from the chaff, which was a novelty for me. We hung around and munched on wheat while we waited for the team to return with new parts. Zac returned to his phone to perfect his technique.


Take 2

A few hours later, we were all back together and ready to fly. An Alaskan electrical-engineering student named Eric showed up with the new prop and drilled it out to fit our engine, while others made some minor adjustments to the airframe. Foam had been added here and there, and other efficiencies were worked out — after a while, we were ready to fly. Once again, Ryan thrust the controller at me and went over some flight details. We tested the control surfaces and ran up the engine — everything seemed to be working. Zac, satisfied with his new launch technique, picked up the aircraft and got himself into position.

Everyone again raised their cellphones while we waited for a headwind. A few minutes passed, then someone shouted, “Now!” I powered up to full thrust and Zac stepped into his loping run. For the second time, the aircraft pitched up, then immediately down, hurtling itself straight for the ground. This time, however, something changed. The wings flexed gently as the weight of the fuselage pulled against their lift. I pulled up on the elevator, and the giant glider arched neatly up, as if it had done it a thousand times before. A rolling cheer erupted from the crowd. I piloted the plane into a gentle kilometer-wide north-south circuit around us — it was a momentous occasion for everyone involved; excited chatter quickly resumed.

The glider proved a little more difficult to pilot than I had anticipated — in part, I gathered, because it didn’t have ailerons. Before learning about this particular glider, I had had no idea a plane could even fly without them. The lack of ailerons resulted, in this case, in an aircraft that was a bit more wallowing, or “marshmallowy,” as I had put it during the flight. Everything it does is sweeping, gentle, and imprecise. It’s an aircraft that’s purpose-built to be flown by an autopilot, not by someone standing on the ground squinting at it.

There was a turbulent current of air ripping down the valley we were flying in, which caused the plane to roll violently 45 degrees left every time it entered the downwind leg of the circuit, eliciting a collective gasp every couple of minutes. I continued to fly circuits while Ryan monitored the flight data and called out telemetry to me, “Rolling right ten, twenty, thirty… forty-five degrees, level out, level out!” We got a handful of circuits in over the course of the next 33 minutes, with the plane cruising at an average of 25 meters per second (see below), which is a little under 60 miles an hour. About halfway in, we decided it was time to line up our approach and bring her back in.

Real-time flight data.

Before we landed, we wanted to try the autopilot functionality. As the plane approached us, Ryan leaned over to my controller and reached for a set of toggles. “Flipping to autopilot,” he said. The plane did two things: it started to wallow, and it started to dive. “Back to manual!” I yelled. Ryan murmured something about the finicky nature of autopilots, then told me that there was something wrong with the CID. He flipped the toggles back to manual. The plane raced over us and back up into the sun.

Because it was designed to be operated in remote Africa, where miles of paved roads and runways are scarce, the plane also doesn’t have landing gear, which means that the way it lands is basically a controlled crash. We lined up our approach so it would land on the uphill face of the hill we were standing on. We did a handful of test approaches; on the last approach, I cut the throttle completely and was ready to put it down. The plane cruised by a few feet off the ground, and someone yelled, “Pull up!” We had overshot the landing zone (or LZ, in military-speak). I throttled back up and the plane roared around again, easing across the horizon into a final circuit. This time, I started to cut the throttle earlier, so I could get the approach speed down and hit the uphill slope.

Which is precisely when disaster struck.

As I arced the plane into its last turn, the wind started gusting harder, pushing it downwind much faster, and rolling it left more violently than before. I struggled to get it out of its left roll into a right bank – but as I was fighting it, Ryan lost telemetry data, which left us both flying blind. Before we knew it, I’d lost my orientation, and the plane was pushing ever-further away from us. For a brief moment, Ryan’s telemetry re-connected, and he calmly informed me the plane was inverted. This was a point of no return.

When we later reviewed the flight data, we discovered that the plane had rapidly climbed, nearly doubling its altitude in a little under five seconds, and then inverted. We saw a flash of red, a flash of white, and the plane plummeted to the ground a kilometer away from us into another empty wheat field, sending a plume of dirt and dust high into the air. Ryan grimaced and slowly closed his laptop. “Well, maybe it’s not a total loss,” he said. A group of engineers took off running down the hill, toward the crash site.

The long walk home.

Post Mortem

We trudged back to the parking lot while we waited for the recovery team to return. Someone patted me on the back, saying, “It’s okay, we needed to build a new one anyway.” As we got to the cars, the recovery team returned, shaking their heads as they approached. A few things were seriously wrong. The LiPo battery packs (the ones that represented 70 percent of that 22 pounds), were both smashed and leaking. The fuselage was cracked in several places; the prop was gone. On the upside, the engine seemed okay, and the wings were, miraculously, still intact. The Pixhawk was fine, but the ESC was fried. It was bad, but not a total loss. Eric, the Alaskan EE who was designing the antenna that would help track the Painted Dogs said, “The batteries haven’t exploded yet, so that’s a good sign.”

I felt awful. I’ve handled a handful of crashes, but this one took the ticket as the most spectacular, not to mention being the one with the biggest audience. If I were to crash one of my UAVs, I’d be thinking about replacement costs and repair costs and insurance and beating myself up about one thing or another – but for the engineers, it was an opportunity to learn. They were already chatting excitedly as they poured over the busted airframe, picking apart the aircraft piece by piece as it lay in the back of one of the student’s SUVs. They wanted to talk about points of failure and stress fractures, flight characteristics and tail height. They wanted to figure out how they could get the aircraft more stable in the air, how they could improve their launch technique and their manufacturing process, how they could train themselves to be pilots, and, most importantly, what the new paint job was going to look like.

They talked about battery placement and shifting the center of gravity, airfoil designs and overdue homework. It was theorized that when the plane inverted, it caused the aft battery to slide forward (like a carry-on in an overhead bin on takeoff), thus destroying the plane’s delicate center of gravity and contributing to the crash. Maybe that was their way of making me feel better. They joked about dubbing the next iteration of the aircraft the “Phoenix.” I went to the grocery store and bought a fine spirit for Dr. Chuck, to express my condolences.

Batteries for sale.
LiPos are surprisingly malleable.

The Debrief

Later that night, Dr. Chuck hosted a BBQ for everyone to come over and unwind from the last two days of work. He told me about an old student who had tripped over a previous iteration of the plane while it was on the ground and kicked the entire tail off. Initially, everyone was pretty upset, but they soon discovered that fuel had been leaking and pooling in the tail, which could have caused a dramatic failure had the plane been airborne when the tail failed. I think he was trying to console me, letting me know there’s a silver lining in accidents like these. Perhaps they would discover a similar, serendipitous surprise in our crash. Seeing that I wasn’t lightening up, Eric offered, “it’s just a prototype man, these things happen. Anyway, have you seen my antenna model?”

We spent a couple of hours reviewing the flight data, and everyone shared their photos and videos of the flight. I was surprised at how quickly the team listed their takeaways: they wanted to build a taller tail, re-design the battery compartment, try new ways to cut the fiberglass to address some current points of stress in the frame, and a handful of other changes. They were also going to double down on their commitment to rapid prototyping – to build and test more, and talk less. Remarkably efficient, in my opinion. No one seemed too bothered that the Mark III was forever grounded. I noticed Kirsten already sketching out a new wing design in her notebook. Perhaps this was the lean and agile mindset Silicon Valley helped spawn – build, test, and build again. Ryan had recovered the broken prop from the crash site and offered it to me as a memento; like Dr. Chuck, everyone seemed to find an upside in the ashes.

The Big Picture

Being on the ground and in the lab with prototype UAVs makes me marvel at the average consumer drone — there’s a ton of technology, engineering, and time put into the design and engineering of each of these aircraft. For the “Phoenix,” or whatever it was going to be next, there were a lot of changes to be made, but everyone was in high spirits. If Dr. Chuck’s scrappy team can pull off a low-cost drone that autonomously surveys areas conservationists are concerned with, then we all stand to enjoy a huge ecological win — from tracking poachers to wandering animal populations, UAVs are going to revolutionize the way we monitor and protect our environment. With a little teamwork and a lot of testing, I think the WSU team will be airborne again in no time; they’re already well on their way. In the near future, when non-profits like the one protecting the Painted Dogs can deploy million-dollar technology for just a few thousand dollars — technology that allows us to film, collect evidence, and track the wildlife we care about — I think we’ll be that much closer to winning the battle to save our planet.