Major Project: Hexacopter Drone

(The fifth in our student blog series, written by Sam in 11th Grade, is followed by the teacher’s two updates on the project, so please read all the way down! Flight tests were finally successful, as students and teacher alike learned the hard realities of “going back to the drawing board!”)

While we don’t plan on taking him to the sun, Icarus was the name we selected for our massive hexacopter drone. With a 31-inch diameter, and the theoretical ability to lift almost two pounds on top of its own five-pound weight, it is operating at the higher end of recreational drone constraints. Most commercially available drones today feature only four propellers, and a mass of around one pound.

Early sketches of the design, with design priorities listed on the side

When we were designing “Thiccarus” we decided to push the boundaries with the materials we had available. A hexacopter design, as opposed to a more common quadcopter (a standard recreational design with four propellers), gave us more lift power and stability with a trade off on speed and maneuverability. To reduce weight and maintain strength Thiccarus would be constructed with 3D printed body parts and carbon fiber struts connecting them. However, when we were brainstorming, we decided that our drone’s primary function would be cargo delivery (despite my suggestions to make it into a fishing drone or a laser-toting drone with a search and destroy mission).

Pedro, Nolan, and Joshua tear apart
old quadcopter drones from two years
ago–fare thee well!

We came up with our design, then our constraints and requirements. After this, we split into design teams, each headed by ”captains.” After the protective shrouds around each propeller and control center base were decided upon, we set to starting a joint Onshape project. Onshape is our 3D design platform of choice for this project. Each team member was assigned one component of Thiccarus to design, and it came together well in a collaborative fashion. Each member of the design team is able to see in real time how their part will integrate with the other parts, which is incredibly helpful.

The eight students work concurrently on the drone CAD model,
with each one instantly able to see how their component fits into
the broader scope

The hexacopter design emerges!

The largest and most difficult piece to print: the central electronics
platform; five or six attempts at printing were required

Icarus is currently in the printing stage, and when it is fully constructed, it will be mounted with two cameras feeding to a battery powered LCD screen. Steered by the controller, it will be capable of flying high and low to deliver small payloads.

(Sam’s article was written in early October. After a delay in printing production due to some technical difficulties, the entire drone was finally fully assembled and taken for some early test flights. And now the update—which gets a little technical…)
After many hours of printing and assembly…

Sam, Ben, and Todd carefully attach
the motors and batteries and other
electronic components

The 8th Period engineering class proudly marched their huge drone out to the Providence soccer pitch. Gentle (and safe!) power-ups in the classroom had proved troublesome, with erratic behavior being immediately apparent. The drone was very touchy, and tended to spin around and roll to one side. Cutting the throttle from even six inches of altitude caused the aircraft to fall with a ungraceful “thump”, with small 3D-printed pieces occasionally breaking off.

Alena gave an insightful suggestion that we could take it outside and stretch out a big sheet of fabric to catch the drone as it fell. This would allow us to try to gain more altitude—and more time to evaluate its behavior and get it under manual control. The soft fall into the fabric would certainly keep both drone and students completely safe! As an added bonus, we would look comically like cartoon fire-fighters.

The group heads outside to try an initial flight: safety goggles on!

And look like cartoon fire-fighters we did! The plan worked rather well, except for Ben slipping accidentally in a mud patch on the field in his zeal for saving the drone. With the extra flight altitude and time, we learned that the machine wanted to spin on its vertical axis—absolutely out of control. Where it should have lifted gingerly into the air and hovered obediently, it was a veritable whirling dervish, and the group could not even agree on their recollection of whether it had spun clockwise or counter-clockwise!

It may look like the class is flinging it into the air—we promise
it is actually flying!

In a typical situation like this, the pilot should be able to add in some “yaw” trim. This means that the controller is set to always provide a little bit extra of yaw control, intended to counteract whatever is naturally happening and make everything balance out again. But adding yaw trim in either direction just didn’t change anything, and after one particularly wild spin the drone fell outside of the fabric and broke one of its 3D-printed propeller shrouds.

See that tilt to one side? About three seconds later Thiccarus
successfully escaped our circle of friendship!
Back to the drawing board…

  1. It is possible that the flight controller—the 1-inch small box that houses gyroscopes and inputs and outputs and magnetometers and so on—is just misbehaving or badly calibrated. But after several recalibrations and trying an alternate one that we had in stock, there was no improvement. Check.
  2. Is Thiccarus just way too “thicc”? Maybe. We could have designed more aggressively, and perhaps brought him down to 2 kg even (4.4 lb). But the specs say that each motor should be able to create up to 550 grams of thrust. With six motors in total, that’s 3.3 kg of thrust available (7.3 lb). And it’s definitely getting off the ground, even with the thrust output turned down for safety. So: check.
  3. It is possible that one or more motors are just misbehaving or getting bad signals. Tiny, threadlike wires carry the commands between the different components, and we have run into problems of this nature before. But replacing one bad cable fixed that, and simple individual motor bench tests show snappy, responsive motors that will blow your papers away from across the room.

When all else fails, Google it. Apparently, when your drone experiences untrimmable yaw, it is likely the result of not having set all motors perfectly level. In other words, one or more propellers might not be perfectly flat relative to the ground, but tilted slightly to one side. And yes, this is quite noticeable on poor old Thiccarus once you look for it. Fortunately, it can be easily solved by readjusting the four screws that hold each motor down, and putting a little “shim” on one side to nudge it up to level.

This is actually an interesting application of standard high school trigonometry. If a thrust vector is pointing straight up to sky, well and good. This is what the flight controller is banking on for its power distribution calculations. But if a motor is tipped to one side by even two or three degrees (barely perceptible to the eye), the aircraft will experience a mysterious lateral force equal to the thrust times the sine of the angle. If the motor is generating a healthy 500 grams of thrust (a little over a pound), three degrees of tilt creates 26 grams of sideways thrust (500sin3°). Small but significant—and the flight controller is not accounting for it.

Maddening: yes. Fixable: absolutely. The motors will be checked and adjusted, and Thiccarus will be bandaged up and flown again. It is also very likely that a Mark II design will surface in the second semester, with higher tolerances for motor angles accounted for from the very beginning and a lighter airframe. Less airframe weight means longer flight times, a more responsive drone, and a greater possible payload.

Providence Engineering Academy: carry on!

(Our final update for this story on the 19th of November.  Spoiler alert: it’s a happy ending!)


As promised, the motors were checked and adjusted. Ben and Mr. Meadth stayed after school and carefully placed pieces of card under this or that side of the motors to shim them up, bringing them as close as possible to vertical. Three motors were in need of adjustment, but none of them were out of line by more than about two or three degrees.

The drone was powered up, with high hopes… but the end result was exactly the same. Thiccarus wanted to flip over to the side and rotate faster and faster, and nothing could persuade him otherwise. Forget flying too close to the sun—Thiccarus couldn’t even get off the ground!

And then…

And then

Mr. Meadth had his flash of inspiration, and it all came down to this image:

The source of all problems.

This diagram shows the initial wiring and setup instructions from the flight controller. A certain teacher thought he had carefully followed the diagram; unfortunately, he had set the actual propeller directions all opposite. For example, propeller 1 was supposed to be rotating clockwise, but it had been set up to be counter-clockwise.

What’s the big deal, you ask? Well, while having everything opposite would still be balanced to some degree, the flight controller uses the spinning propellers to control its yaw. Say the craft wants to yaw to the left, it chooses a propeller to spin faster to the right (like propeller 1), and Newton’s Law of Reactions takes over. If it wants to yaw to the right, it might choose a left-spinning propeller to do that (like propeller 2). But since each and every one was backwards, the corrective actions it tried to take were in every case making the situation worse. If it started drifting left, it would end up spinning more left—a classic vicious circle if ever there was one.

A quick click of a checkbox in the computer and that was solved. All propellers: backwards. Oops.

Propellers… spinning the correct way!

You know you’re doing something
right when you’re looking at the bottom
of the drone

This portable outdoor screen receives
video input from two onboard cameras

Today marks another successful series of flights. We currently get about ten minutes of air time with two fully charged batteries. Three students plus teacher have been brave enough to fly around a little bit. No major accidents—perhaps a leg snapping off here or there with a rough landing!

Lessons learned:

  1. Persistence pays off. If this is a thing that can be done, then you can do it. Just get out there and keep troubleshooting until you work it out.
  2. This is a new era of high school education. To collaborate on a CAD model, 3D print it, order the electronics, and create a hovering 2.2 kg monstrosity in the space of three months is just not something a school could have done in-house ten years ago. Truly these are amazing times!
  3. These students are capable. With the right leadership and direction, they know how to think and problem solve and calculate and design. They will go far.
The story ends here, but keep an eye out for Mark II! We just can’t resist. There are already so many things that could be optimized (chiefly, stronger airframe and lighter weight). Lighter weight means more air time, so bring it on! Look out for Son of Thiccarus in the second semester, and until then, stay posted.

Summer Camp 2019

This summer, the Providence Engineering Academy once again hosted the very special Robot City summer camp. With assistance from four capable high school engineering students (Alena, Davis, Pedro, and Zach), Mr. Eves and Mr. Meadth put on an unforgettable experience!

(Please note that all photos in this article have been selected to avoid showing camper faces, since not all students are from Providence with a photo release. Apologies if you’re looking for your loved one’s smiling face!)

Day 1: Architecture
After breaking into four teams, each group selected the theme for their quadrant of Robot City. The Green Team chose Time Travel, the Blue Team settled on a Medieval Castle, the Yellow Team laid out an Alien Attack on the Beach, and Red Team was Future City. A quick lesson of folding geometric nets, and all campers from 3rd to 7th Grade were ready to build!

The skyline emerges! A colorful mess of card and tape!

Red Team’s skyscraper went up and up and up, and needed to be
tied down with guy ropes!
Blue Team’s “Nice No-Trap Castle”. Should we believe them?

With inspiring challenges like “Tallest Tower” and “Most Colorful”, each team worked hard to lay out their cities. Skyscrapers rose up six feet into the air, zip lines were strung out, and spaces carefully divided out.

Day 2: CAD and 3D Printing
It might sound complex, but physically printing CAD (computer-aided design) models is something within the reach of any elementary student! Mr. Meadth taught the campers how to use Tinkercad, a free in-browser design tool created by AutoDesk. Designers can use simple shapes such as cylinders, cones, spheres, and prisms to create more complex models, such as houses and rocketships and characters.

Two of our campers work on their CAD models (Owen’s model
on the right is shown in detail below)

This is a great tool to get kids thinking in terms of linear dimensions, negative and positive space, perspective, volume, and it’s just plain creative fun! Here are a couple of examples of what the kids came up with. We also had spaceships, tanks, flying cars, and castles. Wow!

Once created (the models above took the students less than an hour to build), the designs were sent to the 3D printer. At a small enough print size, most models were done in about an hour, in a range of colors. Of course, after the camp the students got to keep whatever they have printed!

It’s just as addictive as watching TV, but at the end of the program
there’s actually something to show for. Thanks, Raise3D!

Day 3: Electrification
Always a favorite! Mr. Meadth gave a quick lesson on simple circuits, explaining terms such as “LED”, “voltage”, “series”, and “parallel”. Each team was given a supply of copper tape, coin batteries, and LEDs, and shown how to connect them together to power their city. It wasn’t long before the entire room was lit up with red, blue, orange, white, and green!

A lovely beach paradise in the shadow of the skyscrapers
(the tidal wave was added later)

The Green Team’s time travel zone included some helpful signs
(because time travel can be confusing)

A scale replica of the Golden Gate Bridge, courtesy of Abigail

All teams took up the extra challenges as well, building working paper switches, including both series and parallel circuits, and working to match their lighting arrangements to their theme. Blue Team created “laser traps” for their medieval castle, and Green Team strung out a long neatly-lit road to mark out their different time travel zones. Billboard were illuminated and “stained-glass” windows lit from the inside.

Mr. Eves works on the Blue Team’s medieval quadrant
LEDs don’t come through well in photos, but you get the idea!

When parents arrived for pickup on Wednesday, the lights went out, and the party started!

Day 4: LEGO Robotics
What’s a Robot City without robots? This year, Mr. Meadth and Mr. Eves guided the campers on how to incorporate LEGO Mindstorms robotics sets. Rather than creating robotic systems that would move around (and potentially destroy delicate buildings and circuits!), the teams focused on stationary mechanical systems. Mr. Meadth gave some lessons on essential mechanical systems (bevelled gears, gear reductions, universal joints, cams and cranks, etc.), issued some fun challenges, and away they all went!

Does this look like anybody’s bedroom floor? Times it by 16.

A futuristic monorail glides around Green Team’s city buildings

What’s a medieval world without an authentic, functional windmill?

We were blown away by all of the amazing creations that campers and their team leaders built: several working elevators (with tracks and with pulleys/windlasses); a slowly rotating time travel portal (sadly not actually functional); a crank-powered shooting spaceship; an amusement park ride; drawbridges; a merry-go-round; several demolition machines!

(P.S. For any parents of elementary students wanting a more cost-friendly version of LEGO Mindstorms, I highly recommend LEGO Boost. At about $150, it is a somewhat simplified system, still with sensors, motors, and fully programmable using a block-based system. The only downside is that it does always need a tablet/phone/computer app to be running via Bluetooth to make it work.)

Day 5: Do Over
At this point in the camp, the kids have learned so many different things and have typically gravitated towards one or the other. Some of them think that LED illumination is the coolest thing, and others just can’t get enough of making CAD models online. So on the fifth day, Mr. Meadth and Mr. Eves issued a few more challenges of various sorts. The teams helped put together a welcome sign with their photo on it; they all constructed a wearable accessory lit up with more lights and batteries. Some made hats and funky glasses and others made glowing swords!

The fun keeps coming on Day 5!

Robot City continued to grow in complexity and variety. Some teams incorporated sensors into their robotic systems, using touch triggers and infrared detectors to more accurately control their elevators and bridges.

By the time parents arrived at 12:30, the teams were ready for the final wrap-up. All points were tallied, and the all-girl Green Team took the grand prize, much to their delight!

Parents were delighted to see everything
the kids had accomplished… and that
someone else was handling the cleanup!

Mr. Meadth and Mr. Eves would like to thank all families for making our third Robot City camp such a success! We intend to run this again in 2020 (new ideas are already in the works!), so please spread the word amongst family and friends. You can start by sharing this article with someone who might be interested! And remember, this camp is open to all students, not just those from Providence. We’re always glad to welcome new friends from outside our regular community.

Until next year, may these junior engineers keep on designing and keep on building!

When Things Go Wrong, Could You Lend Me a Hand?

There’s a great deal of discussion right now in educational circles about the positive benefits of failure. You don’t have to look far to find TED talks, psychological reviews, and blog articles on why it’s okay–and even beneficial–to fail. Failure, we read, makes us stronger, fights against complacency, and recommits us to our goals. The warnings are shouted loudly: Parents! Don’t shield your kids from failure! Our own faculty member, Carri Svoboda, shared an article earlier this year about why women in particular might be afraid to fail.

The Foundations of Engineering II class in the Providence Engineering Academy were recently given a new project to wrestle with: design and build a robotic prosthetic arm. Using metal motors and controls for the forearm frame, they then had to 3D print a functional palm, fingers, and thumb. No instructions, and nothing off-the-shelf. Oh, and with one more twist–the entire thing was made double size.

James and Zach prepare the Pink Team’s hand

Isaiah and Kaitlyn working on the finishing touches

So what happens when you give a room full of budding engineers a bunch of robotics parts and computers and a 3D printer? Well, for one, a lot of failure. Dead ends and broken components are commonplace. The line of code that worked yesterday doesn’t work today. The team member that needed to design their part in time just doesn’t. Control wires break. Batteries die. Entropy seems to work harder than its usual self.

And that’s okay!

Davis shows Alan his giant metal forearm; the green boxes down
the side are the motors to control the 3D-printed fingers

The teams worked hard for seven weeks. During this time, they also visited PathPoint, a nearby organization dedicated to working with those needing assistive technology–the original inspiration for this robotic limb project. The direct experience with those who daily use technology to overcome their difficulties was very moving.

The whole group visiting PathPoint, non-profit working here in
Santa Barbara with those needing assistive technology

When all was completed, the four teams loaded up into the school vans, and headed over to the San Roque campus. Their giant articulated hands waved a cheery hello to cars driving by, fingers flexing and twitching in eerie mimicry.

Pedro shows the Yellow Team’s code to a
Lower School student

James checks the workings of his pink articulated fingers

The class presented their designs to the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th Grades across two days. On the first day, failure was the name of the game, as every team experienced the frustration of things going wrong. To name just a few of the dozens of problems:

  • A control line connecting a motor to a finger broke or came untied.
  • A stop keeping a finger from bending backward broke away.
  • An elastic band returning the finger to neutral position broke.
  • A remote control, necessary for demonstration, would not “pair” with the onboard computer.
  • Another remote control was left behind in the engineering classroom!
Nolan, chief coding specialist for the
White Team

A myriad of challenges–yes! More importantly, how did the students respond?

  • They switched to manual operation instead of motor-controlled.
  • They took extra time to talk to their elementary-aged guests about 3D printing and robots.
  • They used tape and scrap pieces to rebuild a finger stop.
  • They retied control lines, anchoring them with bolts and washers.
  • They avoided focusing on the problems, and drew their audience’s attention to what was working.
Our 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Suleiman, shared her highlight of the experience: “Hearing the students talk about the ‘failures’ that happened as they were designing the hands, and watching them deal with problems that occurred during their demonstration.”

Lower School students take a turn wiggling the giant fingers
back and forth with the remote control

The students themselves reflected on this very same idea a few days later:

Pedro: “There will always be failure. Failure is good. You learn from it.”

Zach: “Perhaps it is not our mistakes that are the true failures, but the ways that we handle our mistakes that are.”

Alan: “The point of this isn’t about how many failures we have, but how we deal with them.”

Isaiah: “All this goes to say that every problem has a solution. You just have to be willing to persevere.”

And persevere they did. On the second day of presenting, most of the kinks had been worked out. With smiles on their faces, our 9th and 10th Graders talked at length about their coding and CAD. The elementary students were able to take turns at the controls and wiggle those giant fingers back and forth. What a joy to see older students inspiring the younger ones with warmth and kindness!

Nolan helps our Lower School students
operate the arm

Our closing thoughts come from Sydney (9th Grader), who wrote some powerfully encouraging thoughts for all of us:

“I know that even in my academic journey at Providence, I have failed many times… This seems like the world can end, yet once you rise up and decide to learn from those failures, you really do learn the most… Through the project of making a robotic hand, I understand that failing is normal and is bound to happen at some point… I have learned that I need a team or a group who can help me when I fail. I need to give myself grace when I do fail… I am grateful for this experience and the hand that was our outcome, even if it was losing a few nuts and bolts by the end. Great work, team!”

Summer Camp 2018

It was such a roaring success the first time that we just had to do it all over again! The second annual Providence Engineering Summer Camp finished today, and the brightly lit robot city took wings with our special theme: SPACE. We all know it’s the final frontier, and our fifteen campers interpreted this idea in a multitude of ways. Alien invasion… meteorite shower… rocket launch… solar system buildings… 3D printed rockets and planets… so much fun!

Todd helps his team with some simple geometric designs

High school engineering students Joshua, Todd, Alena, and Sam led the charge each day teams of devoted campers from Providence and the broader community. We also had a good deal of help from Isabela! These excellent engineers taught the campers how to build electronic circuits, program robots, 3D print fantastic creations, and design out-of-this-world architecture. Illuminated buildings towered high above the cityscape as tiny robots darted to and fro. Electrified copper rails ran this way and that carrying power to critical components, with printed sculptures dotting the landscape.

Success! A single 3 V coin battery powers nine blue LEDs…
or is it only eight?
There was no messing around, either—these elementary students learned their stuff! You can ask them what “LED” stands for, and what a “forever loop” might be used for. They know how to build a working switch out of paper and copper foil, and some of them even used their movie-making skills to record short action videos!
The Robot City landscape continues to become
increasingly illuminated
As the days went by, the creations became increasingly complex. First was the skyscraper that was literally taller than Mr. Meadth. Then came the red/orange/green traffic light by the illuminated airstrip. 3D printed costumes were designed (by the campers, of course) for the tiny Ozobots in the shape of cars, rockets, and trains. And—of course—there was the obligatory fiesta of robot dance parties, all happening in perfect synchronization.
A delightful blue flower stands bold and tall
The end of each day came all too quickly. With lots to take home, we hope these happy campers will continue to code, invent architecture, and design circuits all summer long! Enjoy the rest of the photos, and we hope to have as many of you as possible back next year!
The 3D CAD model (computer aided design), becomes—by magic!—
a brightly lit reality
A tall rocket stands beside a crashed alien spacecraft
Our campers working hard to create all manner of new buildings
The tallest skyscraper in the room, complete with embedded
meteorites and emergency beacons
The Copper Rocket throws an eerie light out onto the empty streets

The giant completed city!