Casey Nelan ’16 has always been interested in flying things. He remembers telling his parents that he wanted to build a jet when he was just 6 years old. Now 17, he’s well on his way and is making a name for himself in the world of unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly (and controversially) known as drones.
As a young child, Casey dabbled with building and flying model airplanes. Last year, his older brother enlisted him to help build a drone for the Aerial Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Seafarer student competition. He enjoyed helping, but was eager to design his own device and compete for himself. With financial backing from his parents, Casey went to work and set his sights on the 2014 competition.
Casey recruited some fellow Gilman classmates over the summer to join his team — Chris Song, Riley Secor, and Wolfie Drake – along with a faculty advisor, Dr. Alvaro Salcedo. They began meeting during sophomore study hall and quickly proved themselves to administrators as a group conducting serious work. They were granted additional funds from Gilman that helped them enter the 2014 AUVSI Student Unmanned Air Systems Competition.
The Gilman UAV Team was challenged with designing, fabricating, and demonstrating a system capable of completing a specific and independent aerial operation.
With Casey as the team captain, Wolfie as ground systems control engineer, Riley as safety officer, and Chris as the imaging systems designer and engineer, the team built their plane, Apex, using a pre-made cargo plane airframe. They added a circuit design, two HD cameras, and full autopilot capabilities using Ardupilot, an open-source flight control platform.
Casey, Wolfie, and Riley traveled to the U.S. Naval Patuxent Air Station in June for the competition. Their mission was to fly Apex with auto takeoff and landing, use auto navigation, airdrop a plastic egg onto a designated area, and undergo a search exercise with the on-board cameras. They also wrote a journal paper and delivered an oral presentation for the competition. Sounds like college-level work? That’s because it was. Out of the 33 teams competing this year, Gilman was one of only three high school groups.
Yes, they had a few problems with their mission – their egg was released prematurely due to radio interference and there were some wiring issues with the cameras – but Gilman’s team still managed to place twelfth out of 33, ahead of most United States and international college teams, and first among the high schools.
“I wasn’t sure how we would do as a high school, but I was really hopeful we could do well if we worked hard,” Casey recalled. “And in the end, winning 12th place as a high school made it all the better. ”
The judges noted Gilman UAV Team as the best high school in the competition’s twelve-year history and the students received a standing ovation at the awards ceremony for their excellent performance, determination, and team spirit throughout the event. They were also awarded $1,300, most of which will be reinvested into the team for next year’s competition.
The honors didn’t stop there.
Several months later, one of the competition judges, retired Rear Admiral William Shannon, contacted Dr. Salcedo saying he wanted to recognize the Gilman team for their performance and contributions to the competition. Salcedo arranged for Shannon to surprise the Gilman UAV Team following a presentation to their classmates at Upper School Assembly in October.
“What was special about this team was not just how well they did, they did phenomenally well,” Shannon told Gilman students. “Casey and his teammates also helped us work out some interference issues that are critical to the competition.”
Shannon explained how Casey approached the judges after the competition to explain and verify what contributed to the interference problems. Casey wrote a report for the committee and as a result, the rules will change for the 2015 event. Shannon presented each Gilman UAV Team member with a certificate of appreciation on behalf of AUVSI.
“I was very happy to receive the certificate and the acknowledgement from the admiral and the organization he represents,” Casey said.
But, they’re not in it just for the accolades. Chris says he felt proud that Gilman was able to stand out as a team in such a large competition, “It felt great to be an active part of something that hasn’t been done before at Gilman, and excel at it. The idea that we can apply our knowledge, expertise, and passions to build something great is definitely a wonderful opportunity to have and without a doubt I am grateful for it.”
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