Drone STEM Capstone
Posted 03/09/2016 02:08PM

Senior's Project Combines Humanitarian Need with Engineering

UPDATE: Mike returned to Nepal during Spring Break 2016 to test his newly built drone and to work with Kanjirowa School students as they begin to build their own drones. He ended up working with younger students at another school, met with officials from the U.S. Embassy, prepared for drone testing with the wildlife warden at the park and talked with the minister of education for Nepal. The minister expressed his support for Mike's project and would like to explore implementing more drone education in the country's public schools.

"Now the Kanjirowa students have the knowledge and abilities to not just build drones but also to think about a whole range of future applications for the drones that we didn't envision," said Mike. "They might use them to deliver materials or supplies to remote areas. The possibilities are endless, and exciting."

Mike intends to continue his project and partnership with Nepal as he heads to engineering school at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute. To read his blog posts and see photos from the recent trip to Nepal, click here.

While some students were on family trips and others playing lacrosse and baseball with their teams, Mike Kronmiller '16 found himself in Nepal in Spring Break 2015 flying a small drone at the Mt. Everest base camp. He had built two prototypes and wanted to test how long they would fly in high altitude.

"Battery power is a challenge at extreme altitude," explained Mike, "and the test showed us that run time reduced from 10-15 minutes for the small octocopter to only two-three minutes. This guided the development of the next drones I would build so that we could increase run time and put the drone to good use."

Mike was working on the drone to help rescue people caught in avalanches on difficult-to-navigate terrain. "Avalanches occur every year in Nepal, causing unnecessary and tragic deaths," said Mike. "One in April 2014 killed 16 Nepalese guides, in part because it took so long to reach them." And with tourism a major contributor to Nepal's economy, Mike decided that putting drones to work might help the Nepalese better protect and rescue people in the case of future avalanches. He equipped the drone with a thermal imager and finder that are accurate to detect breathing 30 meters underground.

Mike's brother is completing a degree in engineering and has been helping with programming. His parents work in aerospace and were instrumental in connecting him with experts in the field and related engineering areas for help and advice on both the initial drone and later versions built after he returned from Nepal. "Approaching experts was actually extremely rewarding...going to them with a well-thought out idea shows motivation and passion, and everyone I have talked with has been extremely supportive as a result."

He became interested in going to Nepal after his brother traveled there, and returned with his brother in 2015 for that initial test. While there, they also met with teachers and administrators at the Kanjirowa National High School in Kathmandu to learn about their interest in drones and partnering with the school and their students to share knowledge on building them. The school was very receptive, especially the 24 students in its STEM club.

In fact, the school was so enthusiastic about the partnership that three representatives traveled to Washington the following fall to visit Bullis and talk with teachers here. Executive Director Kapil Regmi, Principal Samjhana Kharel and student Asmi Karki spent two days on campus meeting with Bullis administrators, teachers and students. They also visited Goddard Space Center for further meetings and to learn as much as possible during their visit.

Now the school is building their own drones using kits from the Kashmir World Foundation. Mike keeps in touch with the school through emails and video chats: "I heard last week that one of the drones they made is flying!"

Mike first approached his advisor (and STEM Director) Faith Darling with the project idea in his sophomore year. "At the time I remember being blown away by Mike's understanding of the issue with locating avalanche victims in Nepal and his commitment to using his love of technology to find a way to help," she recalls. "Since then, Mike's trajectory has been incredible as he gained momentum, consulted with experts and devoted many hours to developing skills and building the drone. Throughout this process, Mike has developed into an engaging public speaker, been front in center on the evolution of drone legislation and learned the power of global connections - all in addition to the programming and engineering skills he has developed. I am inspired by his passion!"

Mike continues work on his much larger drone and conducting tests in fields outside of the DC no-fly zone. He plans to study engineering in college while continuing work on this amazing project.

He will return to Nepal this Spring Break for testing of his new drone. "The next step is still unknown," he says. "Export control makes it hard to sell drones to foreign entities and I am currently a non-profit operation and will only look at becoming a for-profit once I determine where the market is."

Learn more about Mike's work at his website www.nepalrobotics.org.