WHALE WATCHING UAV
Dr Robert Roemer
Dr. Victoria J. Rowntree
In the waters surrounding Brazil there is a very unique group of whales that have been
fascinating biologist for years, however observing these whales is very difficult. Boats
disturb the whales, and manned aircraft flights have proven to be unacceptably
dangerous. Thus there is a need for the design of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)
capable of flying out of sight, and taking high resolution photos of the whales. During the
2004-2005 academic year a team of six students began this project, with a goal to
complete a plane with the ability to fly insight via remote control. For the 2005-2006
academic year, our team plans to take that plane and add the ability to fly out of sight and
effectively take pictures of the whales.
This project consists of five sub projects:
1) Design and implement a control system to guide the plane when out of sight using
a live video feed.
2) Integrate necessary sensors, and instrumentation (accelerometers, altimeters GPS
etc) to allow for out of sight control of the UAV.
3) Design, install and troubleshoot, a still camera with video preview that will have
the ability to scan the ocean surface looking for the whales and take high
4) Install a radio communication system to wirelessly send all video and control
information to and from the UAV
5) Design and install a recovery (landing) system that allows for both water and land
recovery while protecting all equipment.
This project is a good senior design project because it requires the implementation of
controls systems for several mechanical devices. Also included in the project will be the
modeling of several systems including fluids, dynamics, and strength of materials.
This project proposal assumes that the current team accomplishes their goal of having a
fully functional insight remote control aircraft. It is understood that if this is not true, our
team will first complete the necessary tasks for a functional aircraft. This could add
additional sub projects that might include, flight control system, motor selection, landing
gear modification and possibly structural changes.Project Description
Video Based Control System
In order to search the ocean for whales a real time video system is needed in order to
replace the eyes of the traditional observer. The current UAV team was interested in a
four view video system, three cameras to create a cockpit view from the front of the
UAV, and a fourth camera that views through the attached still camera. Final decisions
regarding the four view camera system have not been made because of current limited
knowledge with respect to budgeting. A proposed plan for next years work on the UAV is
to mount a single wide angle video camera to the front of the aircraft for the cockpit view
and a second through the lens (TTL) video stream to view what the camera is seeing.
The forward looking cockpit camera will be an important asset to the operator of the
UAV. Even if the UAV is flown via instrument only it acts a valuable reference point for
the UAV’s location and position in flight. By trying to use widest angle of view possible
on the forward looking camera, there is the possibility that two of the four cameras
mentioned above can be eliminated which would simply the video feed to ground and
decrease total project cost. The real trouble facing this project with respect to video will
most likely be affording the radio system that can handle the video feeds
The still camera for use in this project is the Nikon D-70 which uses a digital sensor for
image capture via a traditional single lens reflex (SLR) view finding system. This acts to
the video systems advantage because a smaller video camera can actually be mounted to
the back of the still cameras viewfinder therefore your view is through the lens (TTL) of
the D-70. Employing this TTL technique is very important in simplifying the still
cameras monitoring system. It completely eliminates the need to have the second video
camera mounted in parallel with the still camera in order to spot whales. The operator
will actually be looking right through the exact same lens they will be taking the whale
photographs with from a stationary position where the video feed can be observed. Also
trying to match up the focal length of a still and video camera could be problematic if
they were used in parallel.
The most researched video system is AAR05 aircraft video system, see figure 1. This
system has a 15-25 mile range and requires the use of an amateur radio operator’s license.
Fig. 1 (AAR05 Transmitter http://www.wirelessvideocameras.com)
Local radio licensing law in Argentina will need further research in order to determine
proper radio frequency usage. The cameras that will feed images back to ground will be
Sony 450 Line CCD NTSC micro cameras, see figure 2.
Fig. 2 (Sony 450 Line CCD NTSC micro camera http://www.wirelessvideocameras.com)
Weighing only 1.5 ounces with 450 line resolution theses cameras can provide excellent
video quality in a small package that can readily be adapted to the UAV.
The video feed is something the current project team has not delved into deeply. It is
important to note that the ability to transfer video is pivotal to this projects final mission;
the idea behind the whole project is to let a machine replace the job of human eyes in
what can be a hazardous work environment. As complex and expensive as the video
system appears the bigger hurdle that will need facing is the aircraft in-flight control
Aircraft In-Flight Control System
In order for the UAV to fly it will need to be controlled remotely. The current team has
acquired a borrowed RC radio system from a previous year’s payload lifting team in
order to fly the UAV. A new unit specific to this project with a range of 15 miles will be
needed. A computer based interface is very desirable for controlling a flight system such
as this with so much information being passed between the controller and aircraft, but a
traditional RC controller will also be required to run in parallel for a small aircraft system
such as this. Units with a 15 mile range are available but these fall at the upper spectrum
in cost for controlling radios, again reinforcing the importance of having a large budget
for this project. The in-flight control system of most interest to the team is the MicroPilot
MP 2028g , see figure 3.
Fig. 3 (MP 2028g http://www.micropilot.com/)
A radio system like this provides for amazing control of a small aircraft such as the whale
watching UAV. It has the capability of running 24 servo channels simultaneously as well
as sending back to ground its exact GPS location while plotting its course on a personal
computer being manned by the flight controller. The need for external flight sensors is
completely negated because the controller has the necessary sensors built-in. Fully
autonomous flight is achievable by preprogramming a GPS based route into the
controllers flash memory and letting the controller fly the plane. Of course at any time the
plane can be manually flown as well via traditional RC radio when in the aircraft is in
range or computer joystick when the plane is more than 2000 ft from the ground station.
The range of such a system is only limited by the radio modems used for the data feed. If
desired, satellite navigation is even possible with this system for operating at an almost
unlimited range. The major drawback to this system is cost. The controller alone is
$5000.00 not including the required communication equipment. This price tag is what is
foreseen to be the biggest obstacle to this project.
Ideas for the control system will not be limited to the MP 2028g , there are possibly many
other viable solutions to the control problem. As more research is conducted regarding
the in-flight controls a better and final decision can be made as to what system will be
Radio Systems Overview
From the proceeding it is apparent that this project will utilize numerous I/O streams via
radio. The current proposed radio system for the UAV will involve the use of four radios.
The first radio will be used to control the in-flight aircraft functionality, i.e. ailerons,
rudder, flaps, and all other function related to flight. This radio will have full duplex up
and down link with ground. The second radio system will be for the camera and video
transmitted from the plane, there will be two transmitters and receivers due to the nature
of these video transmitters. Each one will only be a one way down link video stream. The
fourth radio used will be the traditional RC radio that is used solely for short range flight
including takeoffs and landings. In review, four separate radio links will be used to
simplify this project. Creating a radio system where a single radio controls both input and
output functionality of the aircraft will greatly increase the difficulty of this project by
requiring the adaptation three downlinks and 2 uplinks to the aircraft, all operating in a
full duplex manner. By keeping the four systems separate the difficulty of assembling the
aircrafts control system will minimized. Please see figure 4 to view a hand drawn
schematic of the radio components and their relationship to the system.
Fig. 4 (Radio Control System Schematic)
The radio system mentioned and reviewed in this paper is subject to review and change
due to cost and project constraints but they represent the ultimate dream system to control
The whale watching UAV will be required to fly beyond the range of the remote
operator’s sight. To accomplish this, the operator will require information such as
altitude, air speed, horizon, hip, yaw, and angle of ascent. This will be accomplished by
outfitting the plane with a series of instruments. All the instruments will be light weight
To determine altitude, some type of altimeter will be required. There are several types of
altimeters on the market with a large range in prices. The simplest altimeters measure the
change in pressure that occurs with ascent or descent. These are the cheapest altimeters
however they require a reference pressure, making them slightly more difficult to use.
Pressure based altimeters are also somewhat less accurate than other methods. On a
normal day with steady weather, an average pressure altimeter reading can vary as much
as 26 ft. In more chaotic weather measurements can vary over 100 ft. This type of
altimeter can usually be found for under $200. The second type of altimeter is based on
GPS satellite signals. This altimeter takes the signals from three or more orbiting
satellites and through triangulation, determines altitude and global position. These types
of altimeters are somewhat more expensive than the pressure based altimeters, starting at
$300 and likely more for one that will create a transmittable signal for UAV control. The
GPS based altimeters are accurate to within 15 to 20 ft. independent of weather
conditions. The final, and most expensive, type of altimeter is the ultrasonic type. These
work by shooting ultrasonic waves downward and measuring the time it takes for the
signal to return. These altimeters are highly accurate, but are very expensive, usually
over $1000. All of these options are possibilities for the UAV, but it is likely that the
cheaper pressure based sensor will be adequate.
Air speed can be measured using a pitot static tube and some type of pressure transducer
to convert the measured dynamic pressure to air speed.
An artificial horizon will be required to give the pilot information about the angle of the
plane. Hip, Yaw and rate of accent can be measured by accelerometers, but are not
necessary for flight and may be left out of design.
The analog signals for each of the instruments will need to be transmitted from the plane,
to the control center for the pilot to be used for flight. This will be accomplished by a six
channel radio. The radio required to transmit over the required 15 miles will require a
radio license. This radio will cost somewhere between $2000 and $3000.
Still Camera Mount
The camera’s mount is the most mechanical part of this project. Its needed level of
complexity depends heavily on the users need for flexibility. Designs range from a solid
structure to a two axis rotation frame. Currently there are three possible designs that
could be used to effectively take pictures.
The simplest method would be a solid frame. This design would be simple to design.
Testing would only include structural strength, durability and vibration testing. The
control system would be a limited system that would take pictures and possibly change
necessary settings. This could be done though mechanical triggers or an infrared
command, assuming the camera is compatible. The problem with this system is it relies
heavily on the pilot’s ability to position the plane and limits the ability for multiple
pictures on a single pass.
Using a mount with one degree of freedom drastically reduces the problems associated
with a stationary mount. The camera would rotate or slide on rails in the same direction
of flight thus allowing the camera to take pictures of a stationary position on the water as
the plane flies over. This would reduce the number of passes required, how ever it would
still require the pilot to fly in a straight line. This design adds significant difficulty to the
design of the mount. A motor would be needed to move the camera and either a program
written to control the system or a remote signal created to allow remote control. As in the
first design, camera controls would need to be implemented.
Maximum flexibly would be gained by using a mount with two degrees of freedom. This
design would assume a fully remote control system with a separate person controlling the
camera. This person could rotate the camera and look for the whales while the pilot flies
the aircraft. This requires minimal skill in the pilot and maximizes the possibility of
multiple shots per pass. With the increase of flexibility comes an increase in complexity
of the design. Multiple motors would be required that have the ability to quickly react to
As mentioned above there are many decisions to be made which will require research for
each of the subsystems. Integrating all of these systems together will also require time
and creativity but assuming the current team succeeds to reach their goals the project will
be completed by spring 2006.
Recovery, Waterproofing, and Flotation.
The primary cause of destruction of model airplanes and UAV comes from the
complicated procedure of landing the usually light weight planes. The solution to be
implemented on the whale watch UAV will give the pilot the option to forgo a normal
runway landing and instead use a parachute recovery system. The parachute will be
remotely operated. The pilot will be able to fly the UAV overhead, eject the parachute
over an area with a safe landing zone, and retrieve the plane. The parachute may require
pyrotechnics, or a pressured cartridge to force the parachute to deploy. The design intent
will be for the parachute to hold the UAV level at landing and reduce the falling speed to
10 to 15 mph. The parachute will be made from light weight materials.
In order to effectively photograph the endangered southern right whales in target
waters, the Ocean Alliance & Whale Conservation Institute (OA/WCI) has outlined
specific needs that must be considered by the UAV project. The list below outlines these
customer needs into four categories: logistics, flight parameters, photographical
parameters and safety concerns. Each need has also been identified as primary (P) or
Since the plane will be designed and manufactured in the United States, the
design solution must be transported Argentina conveniently. P
The UAV must be operable and serviceable using resources local to Peninsula
The radio transmission system used by the UAV must comply with Argentinean
communications laws. P
Because of the poor road conditions that limit mobility around the survey area, the
customer requests a long surveying range. S
The survey team wants the ability to launch and retrieve the craft from the 400 ft.
cliffs that line the target waters and have the capability of flight in high winds. P
The unmanned craft must be simple to fly and prevent expensive equipment loss
in case of a crash. P
The surveying team prefers to finish a complete survey of the waters surrounding
the peninsula in a limited number of days. S
The survey team must be able to locate whales, photograph them, and identify
their markings to distinguish one from another. The resolution of the photographs
must be such that one can differentiate features that are one centimeter in
The survey team wants the ability to take numerous pictures quickly. S
The motivation for the project is the danger that is inherent in flying manned aircraft
under the conditions mentioned previously. The UAV must provide a safe alternative to
manned flight without creating new safety concerns. P
Preliminary Design Specifications
The following chart details the preliminary design specifications for the UAV.
The design specifications satisfy all of the customer needs outlined previously.
Design Specification Ideal Marginal
Transportation, operation, and repair of the UAV
must not present any danger to humans or wildlife.
The UAV operable and serviceable using All components of the UAV All components of the UAV
resources local to the target waters. obtainable within one day obtainable within four days
Surveying range Greater than 20 miles Greater than 15 miles
The radio transmission system’s Full compliance with all Full compliance with
compliance with communications laws. country’s communications laws Argentinean laws
Time to complete a survey of the target waters. Less than four days Greater than four days
Operating altitude Greater than 500 ft. Greater than 800 ft.
Able to fly in windy conditions Able to fly in 35 mph winds Able to fly in 10 mph winds
Photograph resolution One centimeter from 400 ft. One centimeter from 200 ft.
Number of pictures taken per minute 180/min 60/min
Flight time Greater than five hours Greater than three hours
Reduce in size for transportation Transportable by pickup truck Transportable by trailer
Ability to float Able to float without leaking Able to float
Cost Less than $6000.00 Less than $8000.00
Flight speed Greater than 60 mph Greater than 40 mph
Gannt ChartTask Sheet
1 Meet with current team and advisors 1
2 Identify Project Requirements 1
3 Write Final Draft of Proposal 1
4 Divide Team into subgroups 1
5 Test Airworthiness of Aircraft 1
6 Re-evaluate Project Goals 6
7 Develop Overall project strategy 6
8 Fundraising 14
9 Individual Research 24
10 Develop concept for still camera mount 8
11 Develop concept for whale detection 8
12 Develop concept for out of sight navigation 8
13 Develop concept for radio communication 8
14 Develop concept for control system 8
15 Develop concept for Take off / Landing 8
16 Develop concept for instrumentation 8
17 Develop concept for equipment protection 8
18 Order all needed supplies
19 Verify Viability of solutions 6
20 Assemble all subsystems 36
21 Install/Test control systems 30
22 Install out of sight navigation equip. 2
23 First out of sight Flight
24 Remedy Flight Reliability problems 4
25 Repair Aircraft if necessary 5
26 Install subsystems on Aircraft 10
27 Test Camera/Video systems 2
28 Remedy Camera/Video Problems 2
29 Take first Arial Photo
30 Resolve problems with picture quality 2
31 Write final report 6
32 Deliver Finished Plane (End Project)
Description Manufacturer Cost
RC Transmitter JRXP8103DT PCM AIR $350.00
Digital Camera with lens Nikon D70, Nikon 28- $1600.00
200mm f/3.5 5.6G ED-IF
Nav Vid Transmitter AAR05 aircraft video $800.00 (2 required)
Nav Camera Sony 450 Line CCD NTSC $349.00 (2 required)
In-Flight Controller MicroPilot MP208 $5000.00
Complete Radio Not Decided Approx. $2000.00
Parachute Futuba PA 2 $289.00
Total Cost $11,537.00
Heather Haslam 1867 E Bosham Ln.
5864 Borax Circle Salt Lake City, UT 84106
Salt Lake City, UT 84118 (801)556-7975
Ryan Len Snelson Andrew Michael Christensen
75 North Orchard Dr. #3
North Salt Lake, UT 84054 Andrew Clark
(801)870-3236 513 University Village
email@example.com SLC, UT 84108
Dustin Edward Gorringe
9775 Farmstead Circle John Charles Harris
South Jordan, UT 84095 1490 E Santiago Lane #21
dgorringe@AOL.COM Salt Lake City, UT 84121
As the University of Utah 2006 Whale Watching UAV Engineering Team we will support the
Ocean Alliance & Whale Conservation Institute (OC/WCI) mission in facilitating the
preservation of the endangered Southern Right Whale by accomplishing and fulfilling one and
only one of the following outlined goal sets:
A) As of April 2006, if we receive from the previous year’s senior design team a fully
operational, fully finished UAV airframe, which is defined as a airframe including:
1) A completely operational servo actuated surface control system.
2) Completely finished fuselage, wings, tail, landing gear, and all other airframe components
necessary to operate reliably, and predictably.
3) A suitable propulsion system which can generate the required thrust needed to sustain
predictable flight characteristics at all predetermined elevations, speeds, and atmospheric
conditions the UAV will operate in.
4) Enough in-flight testing that a suitable and thorough review can be made regarding the flight
characteristics at all elevations, speeds, and atmospheric conditions the UAV will need to operate
in while whale spotting.
If these four conditions of part “A” that define a fully finished and operational airframe are met
in a satisfactory manner:
1) We will, as outlined in this proposal, devise, acquire, and install an in-flight control system
that will give the operator of the UAV the ability to acquire aerial photographs from a central
ground station without having direct physical contact with any of the onboard video or
2) We will we aspire to acquire the most advanced and reliable control systems possible but at
the same time we reserve all rights to alter the preceding outline of system specifications to those
that best suit the projects budgetary, time, and workload demands.
B) As of April 2006, if the 4 conditions of part “A” that define a fully finished and operational
airframe are not met in a satisfactory manner we reserve the right to disband goal set “A” and
treat it as contract null and void. At this junction we will redefine our goal set as follows:
1) We will take the received design and begin the second iteration in the design process of the
2) We will asses the airframes strengths and weaknesses and begin reconstruction.
3) We will outfit the aircraft with a completely operational servo actuated surface control system.
4) We will provide finished components that meet the needs for satisfactory flight which will
include the fuselage, wings, tail, landing gear, and all other airframe components necessary to
operate reliably, and predictably.
5) We will install a suitable propulsion system which can generate the required thrust needed to
sustain predictable flight characteristics at predetermined elevations, speeds, and atmospheric
conditions, but reserve all rights to under-power the aircraft with the current propulsion system
or a with a different propulsion system due to budgetary constraints.
6) We will test the aircraft in-flight so that suitable and thorough review can be made regarding
the flight characteristics at predetermined elevations, speeds, and atmospheric conditions.
7) We will reserve the right to install all, part, or none of the advanced control system described
in part “A” and the preceding project outline. The control system installation, due to cost and
complexity will be governed solely by the projects budget, time, workload demands on the
project team, and also what we deem achievable in a two semesters after initial design
The purpose of goal set “B” is to provide a quality airframe that can withstand real world use and
have a higher degree of “fly-ability” as compared to an airframe that does not meet the
specifications set forth in goal set “A”. As a team we see it completely useless to acquire and
design an advanced and stable control system only to be used in a poorly constructed and highly
unstable airframe. We want to create a finished product that can be transported and used in a
field environment for the preservation of the endangered Southern Right Whale without the
worry that it won’t fly or operate correctly.