The base motivation for this project was that I wanted to build something cool. A rocket, a hydrogen ICE, something cool. Ultimately I settled on a drone, in part because I was feeling inspired by an excellent issue of WIRED I read in the summer of 2012, and in part because I could justify doing so for 'research.'
My high school was very generous when it came to supporting students with grand ideas, and as part of a nascent research program in the science department and with the support of my teachers, I got funding to build, ahem, a small scale unmanned aerial system to determine its viability as a LIDAR mapping platform. Now I had the money to build something cool!
To keep this brief, the plane was a 8 foot Telemaster, designed with an internal compartment but modified by me to hold a custom payload. The payload consisted of a compact laser range finder (60m range) synced to a Raspberry Pi, which also synced with the onboard autopilot (an Arduino based system, called an Ardupilot).
Here's a glamour shot of me and the drone:
And here's the actual flight paths that some very kind Russians at Floyd Bennett Airfield flew for me:
Ultimately the research objective was a qualified success. I couldn't generate any topographic maps as I was hoping (I couldn't get the stepper motor controlling the sweep of the laser range finder to work well), but I did manage to prove that I could get accurate altitude readings from the laser. That was a first step at least?
Given more time, and perhaps fewer senior spring distractions, I felt confident that I could one day productize this, but that kind of language wasn't part of my mindset at the time.
I think more important than the objectives were the things I learned, and the trajectory this set me on for the next few years towards engineering school.