Beginner’s Experience in DIY Remote Sensing

Beginner’s Experience in DIY Remote Sensing
Flight Riot is all about that DIY attitude when it comes to drones and remote sensing topics.  So, in that spirit we’d like to share a few interesting stories that come to us by way of one of our members, Christian John.   This is the first of a two part story that highlights the trials and triumphs that @christian-john faced while learning to operate drones and conduct survey missions in a very interesting location.

30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a newbie drone pilot learns what it takes to operate a UAV in a remote research setting.

A frozen lake. Knee-deep snow. Nighttime temperatures exceeding -20 deg. Celsius. Studying the impact of climate change on Arctic herbivores is difficult work and probably the last place you’d expect to fly a drone.

However, my story begins a few months before that. This spring, a group of students from Pennsylvania State University worked together to build an autonomous FX-61 Phantom to be used in a number of research applications. Imagine three kids who’ve never flown anything larger than a paper airplane sitting up late at night trying to decide how best to install a GPS and where to add the arming button. Should we paint it? Should we christen it?

After a few months and a few cheap beers, we had a dissected, glued, taped, and soldered our flying wing into something that finally began to resemble a flying machine. Our best flight in those early days covered a distance of about 10 meters, a disappointment to some, but we felt like the Wright brothers. Even with our minor successes, it became clear that we needed outside help. A week prior to my departure for Greenland I attended a drone workshop help by Brenden Duffy (@geobduffy) from Ready to Drone. With his help and insight we were quickly able to finalize construction and parameterization on our FX-61. In no time the UAV was performing autonomous takeoffs, surveys, and landings. At this point, I felt confident enough to take the flying wing to a remote field site in Greenland with no internet, practically no spare parts, and little experience in piloting a sophisticated UAV system. Unfortunately, we forgot to account for one thing before leaving; Murphy’s Law.

Testing our Resolve

Our first flight attempt did not go as planned. Our flying wing (read flying rock) dropped to the ground shortly after take-off and ended with a broken control horn and motor mount; thankfully both fixable with hobby glue. My field season journal entries… say it all.

April 27 – Flight Trial 1:

“The flight lasted less than 5 seconds … Very disappointed.” 

Our second attempt did not go much better with this crash destroying the FX-61’s plastic motor mount beyond repair. The confidence I felt before arriving in Greenland had all but disappeared.

May 3 – Flight Trial 2:

“Had another epic failure. Feeling discouraged.”

When an order for a metal motor mount replacement failed to make the trip north, we were left with two options; quit now or figure out a way to make it work. In remote fieldwork settings, inaccessibility to traditional repair materials is simply the nature of the beast, and an occasional creative burst can make all the difference in the world. As it turns out, the tin lids on Mountain House containers work surprisingly well as replacement motor mounts if you cut them the right way.

Success at Last

After reassembling the UAV and a making few minor tweaks to the mission plan, the stars finally aligned and our little campsite in the Arctic saw its first successful drone flight. The timing could not have been better.   My advisor had arrived at the field site the day before and the recent transition from winter to spring was the perfect time for photogrammetric measurements of the surrounding areas.

May 19 – First Successful Flight:

“The caribou have arrived, the lake ice is beginning to recede, the drone is in the air, and spring is just around the corner.”

Even the damp tinder from extensive snow melt that prevented me from making a small campfire couldn’t bring my spirits down. I enjoyed a second helping at dinner accompanied by the congratulatory bottle of Coca Cola I had saved for the first successful drone flight outside of Pennsylvania. Being so far away from the helpful realm of wireless internet and outside the reach of a mentor didn’t seem so bad anymore.
Image Credit: Laura Radville
Stay tuned for part two of our member project story.  Now that @christian-john and his team have overcome their initial difficulties getting ‘off the ground’ will their luck hold?  What interesting data and images did he discover during his recent research trip to above the Arctic circle.

About the Author

Christian John

Christian John (@christian-john) is a graduate student with Pennsylvania State University’s Polar Center.  He is currently researching the far reaching ecological effects of climate change in low Arctic environments.

Greenland Research Site

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Read about Christian’s Undergraduate and Graduate work
Where Christian posts photos he does not want his professor to see
Greenlandic shenanigans in high definition


  1. MegaFlare

    Wow. What a great story Christian. Sounds like you were on a bit of a roller coaster at the beginning but glad to hear that it worked out for you. I’m looking forward to reading part two. Great work.

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