Fairbanks high school student makes unmanned aircraft project with public service component

FAIRBANKS — Last spring, while many high school seniors were worrying about passing tests and posing for senior portraits, Hutchison High School student Corey Upton’s ambitions were a little higher. Literally. That’s because Upton spent about 14 hours per day during spring break working on his senior project: an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV.

This isn’t your father’s model airplane. Upton built the drone from scratch, complete with an auto-pilot feature, and rigged it up with a GoPro HD video camera so that it could record video high in both altitude and quality. It’s fair to say Upton put a lot in to this UAV.

“It was my spring break and my PFD,” Upton said.

Hutchison High School requires all senior projects to have a public service component. For Upton, that meant building a plane drone that could be used by law enforcement, emergency responders or fire fighters to provide critical visual information without risking a human life. Upton said he got the idea to build the drone while he was visiting a friend in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Currently, UAV’s are used predominantly by the U.S. military to perform reconnaissance and precision strikes.

This is a pretty smart plane.

“It can fly itself on a flight path and send back information,” Upton said. The roughly 3-foot-long plane comes with both a GPS unit and a wireless modem. It can also be controlled remotely, Upton said, and has a one-mile radio range. With a full charge, Upton said, the plane can fly for 25 minutes.

After Upton graduated in May, he didn’t exactly shove the UAV into the closet.

“I was kinda looking for stuff to do,” Upton said. The plane’s logged quite a bit of flight time, including time in Valdez. His most recent flight was earlier in the month, when he flew the drone 750 feet over the Tanana Valley State Fair.

Upton’s mechanical ingenuity might be exceptional, but it isn’t surprising to Dan Domke, assistant principal of Hutchison. Upton described Domke as “really excited and supportive” of his work. Domke met Upton four years ago when Upton took Domke’s class, “Introduction to Small Engines.”

Domke called Upton the “quintessential Hutchison student,” high praise for a high school that is selective of its students. Domke added that Upton didn’t just have book smarts, he has practical experience working in a cutting edge field.

This fall, Upton will be a freshman mechanical engineering major at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Upton said that his career goal is to work in the UAV field.

“I think the application of UAV’s is going to be really important,” Upton said.


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