Two St. Mary’s quadcopter drone teams aided by HTii finish in national top five

Two-teams

Friendly rivals: the two St. Mary’s County teams at the Muncie, IN finals Aug. 20. 1st row (L-R) TORCH – Nicholas Schnitker, Zachary Davis, Michael Krall, Gabriel Heisey; CAP – Jack Garciduenas, Logan McCormick, Mark Marshall, Andrew Rioux, 2nd row: TORCH – Alex Jenkins, Caleb Jenkins, Edward Pontzer, John Paul Pontzer; CAP – Isaac Baldauff, Michael Petschk, Samuel Baldauff. (Photo courtesy David Trick, HTii)

Two St. Mary’s County teams assisted by HTii placed in the top five of a national quadcopter drone competition for secondary school students August 20 in Muncie, Indiana.

The St. Mary’s Civil Air Patrol squadron finished third, and the Traditions of Roman Catholic Homeschoolers (TORCH) team finished fifth out of the 11 regional winners from around the country that made it to the national finals.

First place went a Minnesota team, which took home a check for $2,500.

The event was held at the Muncie headquarters of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) under the organization’s UAS4STEM program.

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The CAP team’s Quadzilla competition drone awaits its turn to fly at the Muncie, IN finals Aug. 20. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

All teams had to fly the Quadzilla unmanned aerial system, a four-rotor, video-equipped, radio-controlled drone that can be flown manually or programmed for autonomous, computer-operated flight.

HTii served as the official sponsor of the TORCH team, providing financial help and technical advice. And one of HTii’s engineers is also an officer in the St. Mary’s Civil Air Patrol and helped guide the CAP squadron’s team through the regional and national events.

The CAP team and other local groups also received funding from The Patuxent Partnership, a nonprofit with members from industry, government and academia. The Partnership had collaborated with the county school system and other local organizations to win a STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education grant from the Navy’s Office of Naval Research.

TORCH pilot John Paul Pontzer flies the drone for the April regional competition while safety observer Gabriel Heisey with binoculars and Zachary Davis keep watch and team lead Caleb Jenkins records data.  (Video screen capture courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

TORCH pilot John Paul Pontzer flies the drone for the April regional competition while safety observer Gabriel Heisey with binoculars and Zachary Davis keep watch and team lead Caleb Jenkins records data. (Video screen capture courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

The competition between the two St. Mary’s teams was intense, said David Trick, the HTii engineer who serves as assistant deputy commander for cadets of the St. Mary’s CAP composite squadron. In the April St. Mary’s regional event, the TORCH team took first place, and the CAP squadron placed second, qualifying both for the finals in Muncie.

Preflighting the drone. CAP team members M.J. Marshall (L) and Samuel Baldauff ensure that props are free-spinning for the April regional completion. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

Preflighting the drone. CAP team members M.J. Marshall (L) and Samuel Baldauff ensure that props are free-spinning for the April regional completion. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

“After the regionals, we doubled our practice time and worked a lot on our communications procedure,” Trick said. “We tried to make it work more like NASA mission control.”

The team also made a major change in its mission profile, he said.

“In the regionals, we did everything on the same flights – flew to the GPS waypoints, looked for search and rescue targets and landed to change batteries. That caused a lot of communications confusion with the pilot.”

For the finals, the team broke the mission task in two. “We did the waypoints on the first flight, then landed and changed batteries,” he said. “On the second flight we located and identified the objects on the ground for the search and rescue mission. It made for a much more efficient operation.”

The extra effort paid off, he noted. “The cadets were ecstatic to have beaten the team that defeated them at regionals.”

Preflighting the drone. TORCH team lead Caleb Jenkins (standing) and Gabriel Heisey roll the drone back and forth before the April regional competition to make sure the ground station receives input from the aircraft's onboard sensors. (Video screen capture courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

Preflighting the drone. TORCH team lead Caleb Jenkins (standing) and Gabriel Heisey roll the drone back and forth before the April regional competition to make sure the ground station receives input from the aircraft’s onboard sensors. (Video screen capture courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

The rivalry between the two St. Mary’s teams is a friendly one, said TORCH team mentor Andy Pontzer . “A lot of the boys know each other, and three of our TORCH team members are in the Civil Air Patrol squadron.”

He noted that “our boys were disappointed they got beat, but they know what they need to work on next time.”

TORCH team mentor Andy Pontzer (L) flies a Quadlug practice drone with Civil Air Patrol cadet Samuel Baldauff before the April regional competition . The Quadlug is much cheaper than the Quadzilla competition drone, resulting in less financial loss if it crashes. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

TORCH team mentor Andy Pontzer (L) flies a Quadlug practice drone with Civil Air Patrol cadet Samuel Baldauff before the April regional competition . The Quadlug is much cheaper than the Quadzilla competition drone, resulting in less financial loss if it crashes. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

The difference between the top teams came down to accuracy in locating the position of the search and rescue objects, said Pontzer, a flight test engineer at the Webster Field annex of Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

“If you were accurate to five decimal points, you got all five scoring points for the exercise,” he said. “For each decimal point you got wrong, you lost another scoring point.”

Otherwise, he said, “The scores were really close. All the top teams appeared to be pretty equal in their flying ability.”

Both he and Trick noted that the trip to Muncie provided more than just competition. “We spent two hours in the AMA museum of model airplanes,” Pontzer said.

“It’s a great museum with an extensive collection going back to the foundations of model aeronautics,” said Trick. “We were fortunate enough to get our own guided tour.”

An AMA competition official evaluates CAP team ground station operator Logan McCormick (R) and Andrew Rioux as they monitor Quadzilla's flight. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

An AMA competition official evaluates CAP team ground station operator Logan McCormick (R) and Andrew Rioux as they monitor Quadzilla’s flight. (Photo courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

Both vow to return to the competition next year. “We’ll have to see how many of our members return to the team,” Pontzer said, “but the team itself will definitely be back.”

TORCH team member Nicholas Schnitker searches for a target on the video feed from the Quadzilla drone. (Video screen capture courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

TORCH team member Nicholas Schnitker searches for a target on the video feed from the Quadzilla drone. (Video screen capture courtesy Academy of Model Aeronautics)

The Traditions of Roman Catholic Homeschoolers organization is coordinated through St. Cecilia’s Church in St. Mary’s City, although participating homeschooled students come from other parishes as well.

The Civil Air Patrol is the auxiliary of the U. S. Air Force. The St. Mary’s Composite Squadron (charter number MD-089) has been active in the local area since 1975. Its volunteers perform search and rescue, give local youth an introduction to aviation through the use of CAP’s Cessna 172 and 182 aircraft and provide leadership training through the cadet program.