AUBURN — Iowa’s cornfields may be quite a distance to the west, but they are weighing heavily this summer on the minds of eight former and current Edward Little High School student engineers.

“We’re using an actual Iowa farm as our example, but we are not working there,” said EL Senior Christopher Lenardis. “We’ve never had a chance to actually see it.”

The team claimed top honors this spring in the state of Maine’s Real World Design contest with their plans for a pest-seeking drone designed to save Iowa’s corn by stopping a costly infestation in its tracks.

“We have to be able to look at a plant that’s about 10 inches wide, see what’s on or inside of it, see if it’s dead or not and then be able to fix that,” Lenardis said.

Now, the team of Lenardis and seniors Faisal Farah, Warsame Mohamed, Tyler Lafean and 2014 graduates Michael Hammond, Evan Raymond, Aaron Vaillancourt and Austin Abbott is heading to Washington, D.C. to see how their designs stack up to those put together by other teams from around the country. They’ll represent the state at the national Real World Design Challenge in November.

“It’s a program that combines science and economics,” said Edward Little High School math teacher Eric Eisaman, the coach of the team. “They need to have a working knowledge of the physics involved in flight, the biology of the crop and the pest and the economics of designing something that is feasible to use and build. You have to know the type of programming that guides the drone’s motions and the type and capability of the sensors you are going to use. There is a lot of research that goes into every decision.”

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The Real World Design Challenge is a national contest that promotes engineering and math skills for high school students. Organizers outline a problem and the basic framework for the solution.

Teams of students investigate the problem and must come up with real-world solutions — detailed answers, right down to the ounce and the dollar.

“We’ve had to justify every thing we did,” Lenardis said. “We have to even go through our entire process, not just the outcome. We have to explain everything we did and why and explain it so we make ourselves look good.”

This year, the target for the contest was the European corn borer, an innocuous-looking brown moth whose larva causes million of dollars in damage the country’s corn crops. It’s a difficult foe. Once it’s apparent a crop is infected, the pest is well on its way to destroying much of the harvest.

“There can be huge loss per acre, up to 20 percent in cases where it’s not mitigated well,” Eisaman said. “Insecticides work, but they are very expensive for the farmers. Realistically, to be effective, farmers need to apply them every other week to a huge area, whether their crops are really infested or not.”

The challenge presented by the Real World Design program was to fix the problem from the air using an unmanned aircraft.

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The Auburn team’s answer was to take to the skies with a drone carrying a near-infrared camera capable of showing minute temperature differences.

The corn borer leaves behind dried-out husks of corn. While healthy and moisture-rich corn holds on to its temperature — staying cool for longer periods in the mornings and cooling down more slowly in the afternoon — infected ears stand out starkly to the drone’s camera.

“It can’t see through things, but it can see the contents, especially water content and heat,” Lenardis said. “It’s not just the heat signatures we can see but the various different vibration levels of different materials.”

Their design, using a single-rotor helicopter style drone, would buzz about 700 feet above the crops, flying in a fixed pattern and capturing geographically synced, near-infrared images of a square-mile area in about 45 minutes.

That image would be analyzed, telling farmers early on if they have the beginnings of an infestation and directing them where to put the expensive pesticide that can stop the problem before it spreads.

Their designs were good enough to win them top honors in Maine and qualify them for the national contest.

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Of course, the national contest comes with a new set of requirements. Instead of a single square mile, their drone now needs to cover 25 square miles in almost the same amount of time.

That’s sent the team back to their notepads for the summer. They teleconference with each other a few times each month via Google Hangouts to refine and hone their plans.

“We are just taking everything and making it upgraded,” Lenardis said. “We need to be able to go longer and do different things.”

Right now, they are looking at what it would take to get the Federal Aviation Administration to let them fly their drones at 2,300 feet.

“We’d be able to cover a much larger area with the same battery life while still having the camera resolution to see the invasive species,” Lenardis said.

It’s an engineering contest, not a building contest, so it’s all done on paper — with calculation, algorithms and hours of research. Their drone exists as a series of calculations — mass, power, lift and economical cost. They don’t have a blueprint or sketch, let alone a model.

But maybe they could see their design come to life someday, if they win.

“Hypothetically, they’ll pick the best solution,” Lenardis said. “It could be recognized as a good idea and could be built and patented and made into an actual idea that works well.”


Do you know a creative person with a technological bent? We’d love to talk to them. Contact Staff Writer Scott Taylor at [email protected], on Twitter as Orange_me or call 207-689-2846.


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