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Drone On!: RaD Lab undergrads fashioning drone for contest of speed

Matt Mordeson, left, and Nye Fong, display one of the drones they are learning to pilot for an upcoming drone drag race in the spring of 2018. The two are also building their own drone in Creighton's RaD Lab, an aircraft they hope could surpass speeds of 70 mph.Name the task and it’s likely someone, somewhere is working on a way that a drone can do it.

The airborne robots are used for photography, surveying, inspections, wildlife counts, delivering packages, search and rescue, helping with movie and television shoots, covering news stories … the list expands almost daily.

For Creighton University students Nye Fong and Matt Mordeson, all those drones doing commercial jobs likely started in a very different place. “Toys,” Fong said.

“What drives technology in so many instances is the first question of, ‘How can we make it entertaining? How can we get people to play with it?’ So the advances we’ve seen in what drones can do started from that idea of a drone as a toy.”

That entertainment value is indeed at the heart of a project Fong and Mordeson are working on as part of a Creighton RaD Lab initiative and which will take flight in the spring in what’s being billed as Nebraska’s first competitive drone drag race. Together, the Creighton seniors are creating a drone in the lab to compete with other schools and businesses in the area in the event hosted by the RaD Lab, Cox Business, and Oracle Aviation, at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Next month, Fong and Mordeson will join in an initial exposition of drag-racing drones with other university and corporate competitors looking to hone their skills in advance of the March 28 race.

The race will pit teams in side-by-side heats, running their best store-bought or custom-built drones against one another. The drones will launch from what Fong and Mordeson described as a modified swimmer’s block and reach speeds they hope will exceed 70 miles per hour. The finish line will be monitored by a high-speed camera, poised to catch a photo finish.

Both Mordeson and Fong underwent a day-long course in piloting a drone last month in preparation for the races.

“All around, it’s a good foundation if you want to race a drone or work on flying a commercial drone,” said Mordeson, a computer science major. “It’s just a good idea to come into this knowing what you’re able to do, especially as you work on building your own drone and want to know how it will respond.”

The race will take place in a space enclosed by netting, allowing the participants to eschew most major regulations governing drones in the open air. Still, Mordeson and Fong have versed themselves in the regulations in the interest of taking their own drone work higher and farther.

After their training course, the two participated in a drone camp with elementary and middle school students, helping impart what they’ve learned.

At present, the drag-racing drone they’re building in the RaD Lab is still in the early stages of construction, with hopes to start some air trials in the next two weeks.

“Our big hope now is to get this drone up to snuff,” Mordeson said. “Each drone is different and having the ability to work on one and make it fly, program and tweak it in a way that’s organic to me, that forms my competitive objective. This thing is a part of me and I poured myself into it. I know exactly what I want it to do and it responds to that. It’s been a great experience in that regard and a great way to work in the RaD Lab.”

Beyond the race, both Fong and Mordeson have formed wider ideas about drones and their potential to change and expand how commerce is transacted, how messages are communicated, how life is lived.

As a graphic design major, Fong said he’s interested in exploring how drones are being deployed for visual images and film.

“It used to be that to get anything in the air, you had to hire a helicopter, spend a few thousand dollars and eat up a whole day,” he said. “But with a drone, you can get those shots pretty much anytime for a fraction of the cost. It looks professional, it gets people excited. I’m interested to see where it goes from here.”

After an internship at Union Pacific, Mordeson said he saw the potential of drones for a lot of work the railroad does, especially in performing inspections or helping to collect data.

“I’m interested in how drones fit in with Big Data,” he said. “Can they be used to corroborate information on massive projects? How can they change how data is processed and stored? With massive, aggregate data sets, I think there’s a lot of potential for what drones can do.”

For now, though, the two are focused on what speed can do for a drone hovering about 15 to 20 feet off the air and engaged in a whirlwind competition.

With the race still a few months away, Fong and Mordeson are locked in on the drone build and also the subtle art of maneuvering a drone at speeds they think — with a few flourishes — could approach 100 miles per hour.

“Just going for speed is easy,” Fong said. “You can build for speed without too much difficulty. The skill to fly it, though? I guess we’ve got a little time to find out.”

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