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Jan 23, 2014, 11:18 AM
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Space Balloons, Rovers, & Radio Controlled Airplanes!

We are thrilled to have a guest blogger this week - Scott Fitzgerald. We think you will really enjoy his project/story!

I would like to introduce myself to the ServoCity Online Community. My name is Scott Fitzgerald. I am a Commercial Pilot with a background in Aerospace Engineering. Over the past few years, I have been an active parent/volunteer in my local school district promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education.

My work with the school began while participating in my employer’s educational outreach program. This quickly evolved into something much broader and has ultimately inspired our school district to launch a curriculum enhancement initiative to place more emphasis on STEM education. Our projects have received some great media coverage which is fun for the kids and promotes awareness in the community. Projects include three near space balloon launches, a radio controlled airplane design project, an electrical energy demonstrator, converting children’s ride-on vehicles to solar power and our latest endeavor, the Planetary Rover Project.

Here is video footage of the space balloon project.
NSB Columbus on NBC Nighty News (0 min 28 sec)

Patrick Clark Reports on NSB Columbus (3 min 16 sec)

Over the last two years, I have teamed up with my friend and co-worker Paul Kaup to formalize our educational product. Our goal was to provide mutual support for each other and expand our footprint in promoting STEM education. Last year, we joined forces under the banner “Reach for the Stars.” Paul entered us in a national contest hosted by Popular Science, the A&E Channel and the crowdfunding site Rockethub. Our campaign was very successful. We reached 120% of our funding goal and appeared in the December issue of Popular Science Magazine. Following this success, we evolved into STEM+C Inc. The C stands for creativity, which is what we believe to be the cornerstone of STEM education. We operate in two metropolitan areas. Paul orchestrates Team North in a suburb of Chicago while I coordinate Team South located in Southern Illinois near St. Louis. Visit us on the web at

We are grounded in the significance of strategic partnerships with businesses and organizations that promote STEM education. These partnerships provide mutual support for like-minded programs and have helped fund our somewhat “exotic” projects in the public school system. One of our partners is ServoCity. ServoCity has provided support for our latest effort, The Planetary Rover Project. A RobotZone 805 series gearbox provides steering control for the vehicle. Other partners for the Rover project include Contour LLC and Day and Night Solar.

Our programs emphasize the use of a technology based project as a focal point to support existing curriculum in the school. Teachers have the option to incorporate the project into their lesson plan for all subjects. Using the project to anchor all areas of study to a common theme promotes cross-correlation of subject matter, problem solving and critical thinking.

We also place great emphasis on goal setting and the process of bringing ideas to reality. This is an exercise in asking students where they are, where they want to go and how are they going to get there. We brainstorm to identify broad concepts that need to be understood and problems that need to be solved to attain our goal. We then break those concepts down into manageable parts that we can understand and address. We use mind maps to track progress along the way. Teaching kids these fundamental problem solving skills gives them a template that they can apply to almost anything in life.

Why We Chose the Rover Project
Our Planetary Rover Project comes straight out of the headlines. I feel that relating projects to current events is an opportunity to establish a dialogue on the project both in the classroom and at home.

I wanted to build on something the faculty and students had some experience with. There was extensive work done the previous year on converting Ride-On vehicles to solar power.

Donor vehicles are abundant so each class could have a mock-up.

The vehicles are of a size and speed that were safe to operate, durable and large enough to allow groups of students to handle them in small groups.

I am familiar with a wide variety of radio controlled technologies. This includes the APM family of autopilot systems, APM mission planning software and first person view (FPV) video systems. I was confident that we could convert the Ride-On vehicle to radio control, add basic elements of sensing technology and give the vehicle an introductory level of autonomy through the mission planning software.

We managed the project in three phases.
1. Design and construction of the basic rover.
2. Add remote sensors and drive via FPV.
3. Semi-autonomous operation through the autopilot system and integration of solar power.

To keep the program on track, I produced several five minute YouTube videos that the teachers can show at their convenience in the beginning of the week. They then have discretion to incorporate the project into their classes throughout the week as opportunities present themselves.

Phase One – Design and Construct the Basic Rover

The goal was to get a basic layout of the vehicle and convert it to radio control. Students would then take a turn at driving the via standard line of sight radio control.

First, I gave an overview of the basic design process. I identified and explained the basic function of each component of the radio control system. We then had a hands-on lab session where the students worked in groups to learn about the chassis and components. They brainstormed and drew conclusions about placement of the components and how they would work together. All five classes derived a similar configuration for the final vehicle design. Design elements include:

Utilize two drive motors, one on each wheel in their standard configuration.
Place the battery in the rear of the vehicle near the drive motors.
Place the Electronic Speed Control in the rear of the vehicle near the battery and drive motors.
Remove the steering column and steering wheel.
Mount the steering servo on the front of the vehicle.
Use the existing tab on the tie rod to connect the steering servo to the steering mechanism.
I installed the components in the chassis per the student’s design. In the next lab session, we saw how the design came together in the vehicle and gave each student a chance to drive. The Rover performed very well. The only adverse handling quality was a wide turn radius. Here is the list of components that we used.

Donor Vehicle – Power Wheels Toyota Land Cruiser, Princess Edition.

Transmitter and Receiver - Turnigy 9x.

Electronic Speed Control – 320 Amp Brushed unit capable of operating on 12 Volts.

Steering Servo – Robot Zone model 805 Gearbox from Servo City running on 6 Volts through a Turnigy Battery Eliminator Circuit.

Battery – 12 Volt/1.5 Amp Hour Sealed Lead Acid.
Drive Motors – Stock 12 Volt motors.

Phase Two – Remote Sensing and FPV Driving

I explained the concept of how Science uses technology as an extension of our senses. A great example of this is how a Telescope is an extension of our sight. The purpose of the Rover is to deploy sensors that give us insight into a world where we cannot be present. One of the most basic sensors is a camera. We can use a camera to survey the environment and to help navigate the rover.

I divided the basic video system into its component parts; the camera, video transmitter, video receiver and monitor. The kids learned about the function of each item. We added a radio control pan and tilt mechanism to expand the field of view of the camera. The camera controls are positioned on the left joystick of the RC transmitter. The right joystick is used for maneuvering. We are using a 1000 mw video transmitter on a frequency of 5.8 GHz. The video signal has as least as much range as the 2.4 GHz RC link under most conditions.

We have a dedicated classroom for the lab work and hands-on activities that has large windows and overlooks the school playground. From this vantage point, the kids can watch the rover drive around on the playground below. We project the FPV video image onto the wall in the classroom. Finally, the student driving wears my “Fatshark Attitude” virtual reality glasses. This offers a truly unique, immersive experience for the kids.

Just before Christmas, 120 kids drove the rover via FPV. So far, the rover has performed flawlessly and the project has been a huge success.

Phase Three – Semi-Autonomous Operation and Solar Power.

The final phase of the project will be conducted between now and the end of the school year. Academic foundation will be split between Geography, GPS, Basic Navigation, interface with the computer based mission planning software and the integration of solar power. The goal is to have the students determine the best route to navigate through an obstacle course, program a waypoint route using the software and execute the mission. The onboard camera can be used to gather information along the way which might be used to solve some sort of puzzle. We are hoping to use the high school athletic field as the setting for the event. My goal is to use the internet to link the rover to the classrooms where the students can execute their plan from their Polyvision Smart Boards.

This first picture shows the command view with ADI, altitude speed, heading and waypoint navigation information. The ADI is live so it would show pitch and roll if there was any. Also, the first person view camera can be projected behind the ADI symbology showing what the rover sees with horizon and flight information superimposed. It is also possible to use two monitors and isolate the Camera/Symbology to one heads up driving screen and one Nav/Map support screen.

This pictures shows waypoint track around the playground.

Day and Night Solar has provided us with a 230 Watt solar panel. Our goal is to mount the solar panel on the top of the Rover. The panel will augment system power and charge the battery through the use of a solar charge controller as the Rover performs its mission.

The project has been very successful so far. We look forward to reporting on progress and project milestones over the next several months. Stay Tuned!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scott Fitzgerald has a lifelong fascination with aviation and all things STEM. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering and a Masters in Aeronautical Science. His work experience started as an Engineer in Commercial Flight Testing at Douglas Aircraft Co. He is a 20 year Military Veteran. Air Force flight experience includes T-38 Instructor, Functional Check Flight (FCF) Pilot, KC-135 Instructor/Evaluator and FCF Pilot. Accolades include T-38 Instructor Pilot Top Graduate, KC-135 Distinguished Graduate, Pacific Air Forces Aircrew of Distinction and USAF Air Refueling Crew of the Year. Scott's civilian flight experience includes 14 years at Southwest Airlines. He is a Captain with more than 13,000 flying hours. Scott's interest in educational outreach and STEM in the classroom began four years ago with the Southwest Airlines Adopt-A-Pilot Program. This interest has evolved into a partnership with the local school district, community and a number of STEM based organizations.

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