Interview with Jordan Mitchell – maker of The Nature Conservancy waterproof drone

Interview by Elizabeth Ciobanu



Droneblog:     Tell us a little about yourself and what you do (hobbies, interests, etc.).

Jordan:     My name is Jordan Mitchell, 25 years old, from Las Vegas, Nevada. I just got married in May (actually the day after I returned from the Haiti Project). I have a wide range of hobbies, from obviously small UAVs and RC aircraft, to sports like Soccer, Volleyball, and Brazilian Jujitsu. The last two years I was a collegiate cheerleader for BYU, so chick chucking became a fun hobby, like lifting weights. I did Air Force ROTC for 4.5 years and had received a pilot slot to become a pilot in the Air Force. Unfortunately a back surgery last February medically disqualified me from entering the Air Force.


Droneblog:     Are you still a student? What are the courses you find/found most interesting?

Jordan:     I graduated from Brigham Young University in April with a degree in Geospatial Intelligence and a minor in Aerospace Studies. The major had many interesting and fun courses. Some of my favorite classes included remote sensing acquisition and analysis, case analysis studies of federal intelligence agencies, and learning how to use many ESRI and ENVI programs.


Droneblog:     What is your field of study?

Jordan:     Remote sensing, GIS, Intelligence analysis techniques.


Droneblog:     What are your plans for your future career?

Jordan:     Currently for future careers I am between becoming a Police Officer in the Las Vegas Metro Police Department or going back to school for a degree in UAVs that I can combine and utilize with what I have learned so far. I think UAVs will play a big part in the future of business and the U.S., and I’d like to have a career involving UAVs. I had a dream as a boy to fly, and I’d like to have a career that can take me into the wild blue yonder.


Droneblog:     How did you become interested in drones?

Jordan:     I became interested in drones and UAVs shortly after having a discectomy on a disc between my L5 and S1 (back surgery) in Feb 2013. I always like building things and tinkering with gadgets, cars, and motorcycles, but with having months and months of down time on my hands, without being able to do much of anything, I put the time to use researching and building my first quadcopter using an APM 2.5 autopilot board and DJI Flame wheel frame.


Droneblog:     What previous experience have you had in building/designing drones or other technology?

Jordan:     I haven’t really had any experience with designing drones before.


Droneblog:     What was the class you built it for? Is a remote sensing class related at all to sense and avoid technology? Can you tell us more about the class?

Jordan:     The Haiti UAV wasn’t built for a class but rather for The Nature Conservancy and for my Professor of my Remote Sensing class. I really didn’t start building it until after I had finished my finals. The Remote Sensing classes primarily focused on imagery acquisitions (aerial photography to satellite imagery), processes and techniques for analyzing imagery along with manipulating imagery to extract more data, then ways to present the data as a usable product.


Droneblog:     What were some of the obstacles you faced in this project?

Jordan:     There were lots of obstacles with this project. The timeline was the first. My professor, Steve Schill, came to me with the idea about 5 weeks before he had planned to go to Haiti, which is when I showed him my personal projects. He was impressed and asked if I could make it waterproof and float (the Second Obstacle). Ironically 3 months before, my quad happened to run out of battery over a pool and I had since done a good amount of research on waterproof quads. The next week Steve had approval from TNC and we ordered all the parts. I used Aquacopter’s pre-assembled kit with upgraded motors to start with to save time on assembling everything by hand like I had done before. The kit floats and comes with air vents that allow the barometer in the autopilot to function while still being sealed from water. Another obstacle was fitting the autopilot board, GPS, radio receiver, telemetry transmitter, power distribution board, Electronic speed controllers, Batteries, as well as optional video transmitter and FPV camera. To make room for all the electronics I added Tupperware to expand the enclosure. Another dilemma was that the battery needed to be able to be switched out relatively easily, but it is housed at the bottom of the frame to keep the center of gravity low and centered. To overcome this I used the Tupperware that would be water tight, secured the lid to the frame upside down, and cut a hole the size of the main frame’s opening to allow access to the inside. Then I made a detachable platform that was secured by heavy duty Velcro at 4 points to mount the autopilot. The transmitters, receivers, and GPS were then velcroed to the walls of the Tupperware in a way that they were easily detachable.



Droneblog:     What were your sources of inspiration to meet the requirements of the project?

Jordan:     Sources for solutions to get this quad working were all the usual blogs and forums for DIY RC projects (DIYDrones, RCGroups, etc) Usually things I want to do have been tried by someone else and I can modify what others have done to fit my projects.


Droneblog:     How were you able to stay under budget for this project?

Jordan:     Stayed under budget by being resourceful and creative with items found at home improvement stores.


Droneblog:     What kind of materials did you use? Where did you get the materials to make the drone?

Jordan:     The Mainframe is from Aquacopters, and is made of Kydex plastic. The Tupperware was probably the cheapest lightest plastic container I could find at Walmart. Then I used Silicone sealant between the main frame and the lid of the Tupperware, which was permanently attached to the frame with a variety of glues and plastic screws.


Droneblog:     How were you able to design, build and test the drone in less than a month?

Jordan:     The biggest key in getting it ready in a month was planning. I had time between finals and while waiting for the parts to arrive, to research and plan for which parts of the build would be hardest, then planned for many different solutions to each part I could encounter problems with (like what glue will bond Tupperware to Kydex, or how many batteries would allow for the maximum flight time).


Droneblog:     Did you have anyone helping you?

Jordan:     No one helped me.


Droneblog:     Where did you acquire the skills to be able to build this drone?

Jordan:     Experience came from having to rebuild my personal quadcopter 3-4 times.


Droneblog:     What kind of software did you use for the drone? Did you code it yourself or use an existing software?

Jordan:     I used the APM 2.6 and Mission Planner software, which is opensource software and works great! We also used DroidPlanner2 on a Nexus 7 tablet as the ground station to monitor battery and status of the UAV while it was in flight. This was a great alternative to bringing my laptop onto the boat.

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Droneblog:     How were you able to keep the drone under 5 pounds? What effect does the weight have on flight time and battery life?

Jordan:     Weight was a big issue – the Kydex frame alone weighs 700 grams, and usually 450mm frames weigh 200 grams. I had set up and planned originally to have 3x2700mah batteries connected in parallel. Each battery weighed a little over 200 grams each. While testing flight time without the GoPro mounted, I was getting 20min flight times with 2 batteries in parallel. 3 batteries ended up being too much weight and made it uncontrollable. 1 battery resulted in 12 min flights. With the GoPro (which weighs in at just over 150 grams) added to a 2-battery setup the quad could not maintain a hover. With one battery and the GoPro I had a controllable 8-10 mins. Luckily we had 9 x 2700 mAh Pulse batteries on hand in Haiti to keep Henri flying. We also had a car battery and solar panels on the boat with us to recharge the batteries while we were on the water.


Droneblog:     How do you make sure water doesn’t get to your electrical components?

Jordan:     As an added safety measure to make sure the Tupperware was secure and no water would ever get inside even in a crash, I tied the container to the frame with para-cord.


Droneblog:     What plans do you have to develop a more advanced waterproof system beyond the current tupperware materials?

Jordan:     If the airframe were to be used strictly over water, I would make a frame similar to the aquacopter out of carbon fiber, only larger and possible with 6 to 8 arms instead of 4. Then use 350-400kv motors instead of the 920kv motors on Henri. And of course something more permanent than Tupperware as an extended enclosure.


Droneblog:     What kind of remote control do you use, and what is the range of the remote? Did you build it yourself or use an existing device?

Jordan:     I used the Spectrum DXi6 radio transmitter and 3DRobotic’s telemetry transmitters to control Henri. I know for certain we had at least a 300 meter range. There was an instance that Henri decided to fly away, and just when we thought he was lost to the wind we were able to test the Return to Launch function, and Henri came right back and even landed directly in my hands. Later the autopilot logs showed that Henri was about 300 meters away when the RTL function was engaged. Since Henri was still in testing while in Haiti, we didn’t attempt ranges outside 250 meters after that, which we enforced with a geofence failsafe that is built into the autopilot.


Droneblog:     Can you explain how the pre-programed flight path works, and what that entails?

Jordan:     Initially we struggled to get programmed flights to work with Henri and the Tablet we were using while on the open waters. By midweek we had it working and we were able to set specific latitude, longitude, and elevation way points that, once written to the autopilot, the AUTO function could be engaged and Henri would pass through each way point in sequential order. Once complete Henri would wait in Loiter mode (where the aircraft stay at the same position and altitude) for me to resume manual control. Each waypoint can be programmed to have the aircraft do different actions. By default it is set to continue to the next waypoint but it can be told to hold position for a time, land, take a picture, spin around, perform a circle with the camera pointed at a point of interest, or flips if you know how to program the python script to do so. Programmed waypoints made surveying areas of the reef and mangroves much easier because we could allow Henri to fly himself and we could control what direction the camera faced.


Droneblog:     Can you describe the process of filming for the Nature Conservancy Program (i.e. How long did it take to acquire several hours of film? What was your role in the project?)

Jordan:     Since this was a proof of concept project, and I hadn’t had time before going to Haiti to test anything except a little tuning. Henri hadn’t even touched water honestly. Filming with Henri didn’t jump straight to getting the best shots and ideal framing. We started slow and I tried my best to teach Steve and George how everything worked as we went along. First we started with water take-offs and landings, flight time tests in the calm waters in the mangroves, then tested limits of mobility and how it would react to certain control inputs and flying situations.Then we decided to get brave and test altitude. 80 meters was about the highest I dared to fly Henri manually, since it’s hard to gauge rate of decent when it’s that high and it is easy to lose control. Every flight was with the GoPro attached and recording. By the end of the week Henri was completing programmed routes almost 2 KM long, usually between 50 and 80 meters of elevations. The goal for this footage was to provide high-resolution visualization to aid biologists and ecologists in looking at the satellite imagery and bathymetric maps, to create more accurate models for coral reef maps. My role was to pilot Henri and collect as much footage as we could at as many locations that we stopped at as we could, and to prove that Drones could help conservation work of the coral reefs.

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Droneblog:     What aspect of the use of drones do you find most interesting (i.e. applications in nature conservancy, filming, etc.)?

Jordan:     I find the versatility of what UAVs are able to do and continue to prove to be able to do as people around the world experiment with them, most interesting. So in this particular project that was my greatest interest – doing my best to provide as much useful footage and show the extent to which Henri could perform over open ocean waters, to help in conservation work on coral reefs around the world.


Droneblog:     How do you see the future of drones developing?

Jordan:     I think UAVs will play a huge role in the future, especially as UAV technology becomes better and less expensive. It is a disruptive technology that will take time to figure out how to appropriately integrate into the societies of the world. UAVs will be a huge game changer in many different fields. Large corporations and businesses that drive countries, like the United States, will realize UAVs will save them huge amounts of money and provide extra benefits, and find a way to integrate them for the benefits of their economies.


Droneblog:     What role do you see yourself having in the future of drones?

Jordan:     I would love to have even a small part in advancing the good uses for UAVs and Drones, and help prove they are more useful than they are evil, as many denote from the word “Drone”. I would like to start an aerial photography company and provide imagery products to help companies excel in their business. My dream was to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force, but unfortunately my back surgery ruined that dream. UAVs are a way for me to still be able to venture into the sky and see more of the amazing world we live on from above.


Droneblog:     What do you think of government regulations on the use of drones – should governments be involved, and if so how/how much?

Jordan:     How much and how the U.S. Government should and can be allowed to regulate is a tough line to define. Why should the government need to regulate a $40 kid’s toy with a tiny camera that anyone could pick up at any hobby store? That same kid could spend that same $40 on a Raspberry Pi and learn how to hack into neighbor’s or the Federal Government’s computers and gain access to thousands of cameras. Which has more potential for doing wrong in our day and age with almost everyone carrying a smartphone in their pocket everywhere they go or laptops with cameras on the screens? And which does the Federal Government often offer jobs to once they are caught hacking into their computers? I agree that there needs to be some regulations or guide for how to use UAVs in U.S. airspace – safety should always be the first priority. But regulating UAVs only because they are used to make a profit, when the same UAV when used for personal pleasure is unregulated, isn’t the right way to do it. I also don’t fully agree with the FAA’s recent amendment to “define” line of sight rules to RC aircraft, which decimates the First Person View (FPV) flying potential of UAVs. For some people it’s easier and safer to fly as if you are in the cockpit than to struggle with the ability to maintain proper orientation from the ground. Also there are many people like myself that would love to fly and drift through the sky that won’t physically ever be able to fly due to physical disability. Flying UAVs through FPV can open the world for these people and give them experiences they never thought they could have. I think only time will tell how UAVs will fit into our society and there will be a good amount of back and forth with regulations as we find more positive uses for drones.


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