Saturday, March 31, 2007

Flight Testing - TH1

After working with Dave remotely from Argentina, staying updated on all of the project details, I finally had to opportunity to come back home to California for a short visit. As luck would have it, I ended up staying on the boat right next to him in the Oakland marina.

Our first glider flying outing was at Tilden park in Berkeley where we walked up to Vollmer Peak and around to its backside which looks directly at Mt. Diablo to east. The winds were extremely light at about 0-5mph but Dave hucked the robot off anyways and flew it around a couple of times on R/C, my first time to see the TH1 in action. Due to the extremely light winds we called it a day after only a couple of short flights and didn't switch into autopilot once.

Our second trip out was a repeat up to Vollmer peak where the conditions where much stronger. We got the glider up and away from the hill and flipped it back and forth from manual to R/C control using the onboard autopilot robot. It works! TH1 hasn't quite learned how to seek and climb in thermals yet but it can maintain smooth and level flights even in the turns as it hunts for pre-programmed way points while in autopilot.

Since these first few flights a couple of weeks ago, Dave has been working on monitoring the power levels (voltage) for the onboard batteries powering the gumstick computer and the servos. He is also working on converting the PWM (pulse wave modulation) digital signal, used to control the switching from manual R/C control to autopilot, to an analog value.

"If the glider flies out of range of the R/C transmitter, the receiver stops receiving the R/C signal. Since there is no pulse at the PIN, the controller board times out, while waiting for a pulse, introducing a delay in the loop that is used to read and write PWM values. Now I'm reading analog values so that the onboard computer can decide if its on autopilot or not," says McCutcheon.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Big Day in South Africa

Three new paragliding world records, including the furthest distance flown in a straight line – 426km (pending FAI approval) - were all broken in a single day back in December 2006 in South Africa by two brothers from Slovenia. Once approved, the record distance surpasses Will Gadd’s record of 423km by just 3km set back in 2002 in Texas, USA.

On December 8, 2006 in De Aar, South Africa, world-renowned for its Southern Hemisphere winter-time flying, Aljaz and Urban Valic spent 7.5 hours in the air and flew together at an impressive average speed of nearly 60km/h to cover their record-breaking distance, landing just 400 meters apart. The two brothers had travelled specifically to South Africa to set a new distance-t0-goal record, which they also did on this epic flight.

Also on the same day in South Africa, Richard Westgate and Phil Bibby from the United Kingdom made their way into the record books by flying a tandem paraglider further than any other paragliding duo for a final distance of 356 km (222.5 miles) in just six hours nine minutes, beating the previous record of 314 km set in Brazil in October 2006. Their new record is also pending FAI approval.

In other paragliding news, top British female pilot Nicky Moss was attacked by a pair of giant wedge-tailed eagles in Australia last week while preparing for a world title event to take place in Manilla, Northern New South Wales this month. While many paragliding pilots routinely fly with several types of birds of prey, they are not usually prone to attack the acutal pilot or their glider.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thermal Hound I - Robot Glider Prototype

‘Super’ Dave McCutcheon’s first prototype glider - Thermal Hound I (THI) - is being designed as a self-thermaling robotic glider able to fly a specific search pattern while looking for thermal lift. Once it encounters columns of rising air, the glider will then look to stay within and begin to climb in the lifting air, transmitting data back to the pilot and ground crew.

I caught up with project leader and team pilot Super Dave over the phone to learn more about the thermal glider robotic prototype that he’s currently developing and testing.

“Well, it’s a Great Planes ‘Spirit’ with a 2 meter wing span and four channel transmitter and receiver. The choice for this specific model of glider for a prototype Thermal Hound was easy. “It’s basically an entry level glider – very stable for beginners to learn to fly and easy to put together... and repair. I needed a sort of a ‘crash test dummy’ since I knew I’d probably be crashing it a lot as I was developing the software and hardware for it.” Currently, Thermal Hound I has flown over thirty successful test flights. “It’s a cheap, stable platform for R&D,” he added.

Basically, it works like this. “There’s a control/telemetry module that goes in-line between the onboard receiver and the actual servos onboard.” McCutcheon explains. He calls his control module or ‘Robotic Pilot’ the Onboard Computer Controller; bringing together a GPS, accelerometer, Gumstick computer and the controller board – the interface between the Gumstick computer and the outside world, like the receiver and the servos and other critical sensors.

“I gotta a lot of work to do today if I’m going to get any test flights in,” McCutcheon announced. I wished him good luck. More to come so stay tuned…

Friday, January 12, 2007

Paragliding in Argentina

Argentina was host to the 1999 Paragliding World Cup or PWC. Some of the best flying in Argentina is in the central Sierra's above Córdoba, just outside a little town called La Cumbre. The Chuchi Coral launch brings fliers from around the world to enjoy the incredible natural beauty and awesome flying conditions with a brilliant LZ down by the river.

'Condor' Pablo Kuniss won the Argentinian leg back in the 1999 PWC tour. Now Pablo gives tandem or bi-place flights for visiting tourists and aviators alike. His nick name 'Condor' was given to him by fellow pilots when learning to fly back in the early 90's he followed a young condor up out of Cuchi Coral, watching when it turned and at what angle and soaring for which thermals. Together they flew all the way back in to La Cumbre for the longest flight at that time in the area.

Cold beers at the beautiful LZ below are always warranted. Here Condor highlights key points of the land on a map while Junior, the local parilla/cervezeria owner looks on.

High Above Cuchi Coral

1,500' (approx.) above and behind the Chuchi Coral launch you can see the old dirt road leading back into La Cumbre, Córdoba. As the small fluffy cumulous clouds indicate there is good lifting air in pockets or columns to be flown in. If you click the photo to enlarge it you can actually see the other glider pilots higher and further out, following the natural 'cloud stree'.

Aerial view of La Cumbre, Córdoba, Argentina

The beginnings of a thermal

Shining from the reflection of the sun in the hot desert-like valley of Calingasta in the North of Argentina, the whirlling spiral of hot air is known as a 'dust devil' or 'twister' or really the beginnings of a thermal that will take the air within its path as well as the skilled paraglider pilot, spiraling upward to cloud base.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Back on the Ranch

Christmas Day, Piru, CA

I caught up with Dave on a recent international phone call from Buenos Aires, Argentina (while preparing for a model photo shoot) to project headquarters – the twenty-nine foot Res Ispa yellow and white sailboat - moored in the Oakland estuary across the Bay from San Francisco. Dave just returned from Christmas in Southern California with family and managed to get a little glider testing in while down south.

Dave and I spent a good portion of our youth growing up a mile apart from each other in a small migrant farming town called Piru. Our families both migrated away from more urban areas, bought small orange orchards and built their dream houses. This was before the internet, cable television and right about the time satellite TV was making is debut. The Commodore 64 had just come out followed by the first Apple computer. Dave began doing some basic programming on a simple game that was kind of a Dungeons and Dragons, where the player had options about which way to navigate through a maze that we drafted on graph paper. Those were the days…

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Thermal Hound - Super Dave McCutcheon

The Beginning of a Dream

When I first met David McCutcheon in the fourth grade, he shook my hand and said ‘look what I can do,' grabbing my arm up and over his shoulder, flinging me through the air and on to my back in the middle of the yard. “Ufffgghhh,” I yelped out, as the breath inside me was all but gone. That was more than thirty years ago back in 1977.

Dave has always been a builder, a dreamer, always with those semi-grounded visions of grandeur. Once it was building a submarine high up on dry land in case of seasonal flooding from the riverbanks below. Another time it was falconry – and since there were no falcons in the area – he set out unsuccessfully to tame the local red-tail tree hawk that was nesting some 100’ up in the tallest tree around.

After serving his country in the U.S.M.C., Dave began to take up another love, paragliding – man’s best attempt so far to fly like a bird using only nature’s energy to stay aloft. In 1996, we headed up to Lakeside, OR for the US Paragliding nationals in which more than 70 international pilots competed for bragging rights. Among others in attendence were legendary pilots Othar Lawerence and Chris ‘Super Fly’ Santacroce, both Red Bull Airforce pilots at the time. The only day that Dave reached goal in this competition was the same day that the flying was deemed too treacherous due to strong thermal conditions and prevailing winds at altitude and the competition was called off. Dave actually flew past the goal on this day and would have had one of fastest times.

Stay tuned for more on Super Dave, his team and his record breaking attmept...