We received confirmation that we were in the Drones For Good Competition late November 2014. We had to have a working prototype by February 2015. This gave us at best, 3 months to prepare. So far all we had was a video explaining how our drone delivery system would work.
(Initial video is at this link https://youtu.be/Aru-pIR_G3U We originally called ourselves Skynet. Cool name right!)
We actually had to build something now.
Grant predicted we would have a basic prototype by the end of December at the latest. This time line proved to be more than optimistic. Grant quickly realised that he was going to need a lot of help. He set to employing 5 engineers that were completing their study at James Cook University (JCU) and rearranged his house to become a work space for everyone.
Because something like this had never been built before there was very little to use as a reference so any problem had to be painfully diagnosed and then a solution created. One of the problems that had them stumped for a while was that the camera was not completely level. It was only a few millimetres off level but this was enough for the drone to misjudge where it was and not move to the right position to complete the delivery. Unfortunately, all these bugs meant that the drones crashed a lot, and with each crash the on board computers got a little less reliable. This presented its own set of problems because there was no easy way of telling if the drone was not performing because of the changes that the team had made or because of damage to the on board CPU. The problems were intermittent which made it even harder to diagnose.
Unfortunately, time was running out and we still did not have a product that could perform deliveries. I had to go away for work so I planned to meet the guys in Dubai. I kept in contact with the team via the phone but the news coming back down the line was not sounding positive even though Grant was trying his best to reassure me.
I had organised to have spares of everything for the competition. We had a spare drone, spare caddy, spare tools etc. Everything that I could think of was planned for just in case. We could have had two systems running with the amount of spares we had. The last thing I wanted to happen was something small failing (like an adaptor or battery) and we would not be able to present. This turned out to be a very wise decision.
I got a message from Grant the morning he was catching the plane to Dubai saying that they were still unable to get the drone to make a delivery reliably. He wanted guidance on what he should do. Unfortunately, due to the time difference by the time I called him back he was already at the airport. He told me that he had packed up one complete system and left the other one with the rest of the team to keep testing and coding. It was a good decision but it meant that we had no back up drone if things went pear shaped.
Day one was an orientation day. The organisers of the event did not hold back on anything. There was a purpose built stage and seating for the event. One team had requested a small building be built to so that they could show off the capabilities of their drone. Another team were showing off a water rescue drone so there were boats available to assist with setting that up. There were TV cameras and an MC and heaps of organisers running around with radios trying to get everything organised. Check out the Drones For Good Youtube video. It was all a little bit overwhelming. I remember thinking we are just a group of guys from Australia maybe we are in over our head. On the bus home later that day I said to Grant "This is just like one of those American movies where the rag tag group of kids pull together to overcome some adversity and then go on to win the finals (Major Pain springs to mind). Grant had a laugh but that comment about overcoming adversity would later come back a bite me.
We still didn’t have a working product. I knew the guys back in Australia were pulling long hours testing and rewriting code and testing again. I had my fingers crossed that they would have sorted out the issues. We got briefed on the program and where we had to be for that day. We got a 15 minute slot where we could practice our presentation. The guys back in Australia had sent through the latest code that they had tested overnight. It had worked once for them but they were not sure if they just got lucky or not. This was going to be the first time we had tested it there and we were going to be testing in our practice time. It was hardly ideal but you have to adapt and overcome. This would have been the first time I would have seen it working ever! I wanted nothing more than to watch it do its thing but I was the one giving the presentation. I had to focus on doing that. The guys set to work setting up the drone and the sequence they had for launching it while I gave my speech. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful in making a delivery but the time was good for the guys to work out what they were doing in the space we were provided.
Later that day we were told that it was illegal for us to test outside of the 15 minutes we were given anywhere in the UAE. This was a real blow for us because we needed to figure out what was going wrong with it and try to fix it. We needed to do some testing desperately. I thought, we are going to have to risk it and go somewhere to do some flying. I figured that there is heaps of desert just outside of town that we could use and if we go off the beaten track a little bit, no one would ever know. I was working on the assumption that it would be easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. I enquired with some of the organisers as to a good place to go to see some sand dunes. I suspected that they knew what I was up to but didn’t say anything. We arranged a driver and went out there.
The driver must have been quite confused as we asked him to find a place off the highway where we could fly our drone. There we were, 3 Aussies in a massive desert trying to get a robot to drop a container in a basket. We really did feel out of our depth especially since the drone failed time after time. We managed to get 1 out of 6 tests to be successful. That successful test sent up a cheer from all of us as we jumped in the air. Even the driver was cheering as he started to figure out what we were trying to achieve. This was the first successful delivery I had seen. Unfortunately, all the tests after that failed. We were so focused out there trying everything we could to get it going that we didn’t notice the wind. It was quite strong. Later we figured out that the drone was battling the wind every time it flew meaning that it was not able to maintain level flight. It had to fly at an aggressive attitude to maintain its position in the air. This meant that it was not looking straight down. It would fly to the GPS that we gave it and look down but not see the net. We didn’t realise this until much later though. All we could do now was send the data from our tests back to the team working in OZ and hope that they could perfect the code overnight.
I organised for all of us to get up early the next day so that we could talk with the team back in Australia and see what they came up with. The guys had changed the code and sent it through. The only way we would know if it worked is when we used it in the semi-finals. There was no more time to go back to the desert and test the new code on our drone. We had to hope that it worked. We had about 2 hours before we had to be at the competition site. Fatefully Grant decided to double check that the camera was straight and level. He went to tighten one of the plastic screws that was holding the camera on and it snapped. It snapped the head off the screw leaving the rest of the screw inside the screw hole. I thought back to my comment about the rag tag team overcoming adversity to win. This was that moment. We had no tools to fix the problem in our hotel room. There was no way of getting the remainder of the screw out with the tools we had. It was simply something that we had not planned for. A sense of fear started to fill the room. The drone would most definitely not work in its current (broken) form. I checked my watch we had to get this fixed quickly and get to the competition. I was grateful we had some time. In my experience these things tend to happen minutes before you need them. I ran down to reception and asked for a maintenance person. It seemed like ages before he came down. I asked if he had any tools, but the going was tough because English was not his first language. I asked him to come up to the room to show him the issue, he was reluctant stating that they had a staff meeting in 10 minutes and he would come back after that. I pleaded with him to come and have a look now so that he could better understand what was needed. He reluctantly agreed to come up to the room. Once he saw the drone all thoughts of his team meeting left his mind. I am guessing that he had never seen anything like this before or maybe he only ever saw one on TV. He had a quick look at the problem and called one of his colleagues to come up to the room. Both guys managed to work out something with the limited tools that they had and removed the remainder of the offending screw. By this time the organizers were hounding us. We were late for check in down stairs. Grant replaced the screw and we quickly rushed downstairs. There was no time to wait for the bus so we legged it to the stadium (about 1Km away) bypassing the organizers who were starting to panic that we could not be found. As it turned out we got there with plenty of time to spare but we were so full of adrenalin it was hard to come down. I said to grant "overcome adversity, check! Now all we have to do is win this thing"
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