BY UMAY SALMA
Levitation has always been fascination. Because, maybe, it gives you the sensation of beating gravity and travelling in the third dimension. You see we move mainly in two dimensions so there comes a strong desire to beat the biological limitation. This leads to building machines like airplanes that enable to move across the third dimension. Wouldn’t it be more appealing if you could explore this third dimension with a remote control without having to move yourself? Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are crafts capable of flight without an onboard pilot. They can be controlled remotely by an operator or can be controlled autonomously via pre-programmed flight paths.
A quad-rotor helicopter (i.e. QUADCOPTER) is an aircraft whose lift is generated by four rotors. Control of such a craft is accomplished by varying the speeds of the four motors relative to each other. Quad-rotor crafts naturally demand a sophisticated control system in order to allow for balanced flight. The dynamics of such a system demand constant adjustment of four motors simultaneously. The quad-copter has been a dream project of engineering students. Not that it’s not possible; (Of course not!) But, for some reason, we see students frequently picking up this project and then, as it turns out, fail in the end.
But here is this guy “Sohaib I. Malik” who aced this project in his sixth semester of Electrical Engineering. On February 13, 2014. I had the pleasure of talking to him and discovering the reasons behind this accomplishment. Here’s our talk:
Me: Why Quad-copter? Where did the inspiration come from?
Sohaib: Okay, why quad-copter. Let me take you back. I was in 10th grade when there came a project named Ardupilot. It was a wonderful resource. They shared literature regarding flying. I became profoundly interested in flying. I bought the copters off the shelf, but they didn’t fly the way I wanted them to fly! They were inefficient. That was when I decided to build something that could fly according to my will. So, for the next two years I was all experimenting and studying the art of avionics.
Me: I see. What took you so long then?
Sohaib: Well, the freshmen year here I was just partying and partying. It was just last summer’s when I again made my mind.
Me: We see even final year students are often unable to complete this. Of course it’s doable, but then why do students fail to do so?
Sohaib: I would say simply because of “lack of motivation”. What happens is that students keep on procrastinating and then when the deadlines haunt them they can’t come up with anything except blaming the project itself. Secondly, I have observed that the students here don’t use the resources as they should be used. They try to create everything from scratch. My theory is that study the work done already in a particular field and then it’s perfectly fair to pick up where someone else might have left. There’s no point in re-inventing the wheel.
Me: That’s a point! Okay coming back to your project, why “Quad”? I believe there are other rotors too.
Sohaib: The reason with Quad is that it is symmetrical in every way; vertically, horizontally, rotationally. The symmetry makes the coding side easy as well as the balancing part easier. Any more than 4 would require a larger frame as well. This also means more weight and thus more powerful motors.
Me: How useful were the online resources? I have seen quite a lot work on this subject
Sohaib: Extremely! As mentioned earlier that I appreciate the work of others. Even if someone has shared a project report of a failed project online that too helps you.
Me: By teaching you what not to do?
Sohaib: Exactly. It saves you a lot of time. Anyhow, the ArduCopter on DIYdrones is amazing and so are the software features on multiwii.com. So, I combined the best of both and came up with my Arduino controlled Quad-Copter
Me: How long did it take you?
Sohaib: I started about the start of semester so…
Me: Three to four months safely?
Sohaib: Yeah, almost.
Me: What was the most time-consuming part?
Sohaib: Waiting for the components to be delivered, and then taking out errors from the coding part and tuning the Quadcopter…
Me: Where were you buying your equipment from?
Sohaib: There are some online stores. So, I placed my orders and then had to wait patiently for the air-mail to arrive.
Me: Quad-copter is a dream project. Before picking this up, you must have thought either you would be hitting straight “bull’s eye” or loosing entirely. There’s not an in-between, because at the end of the day either it’s working or not.
Sohaib: Well from the start of the project, I had enough knowledge in the area to know that it was definitely possible. The more important part however was to get parts that worked seamlessly with others.
Me: And with challenges like grading, and to be more precise, relative grading, did you feel any pressures hampering your creativity?
Sohaib: I tend not to worry too much about grades so there weren’t much pressures.
Me: So grades don’t matter for you?
Sohaib: Not that they don’t matter. Just that I am easy going with grades.
Me: Nice. So, what maximum height have you achieved with your copter?
Sohaib: Maximum height I achieved was around 30 feet, it is easily capable of much more, but since I am piloting it myself, I try not to test my limits too much.
Me: Is there a space to mount camera?
Sohaib: Yes, there’s already a camera on-board. But it’s not actively stabilized.
Me: The motor is capable of lifting more load?
Sohaib: It is definitely capable of carrying more load, I have carried up to around 300-400 grams to test out, but it can definitely carry more…
Me: Were there any stuck-up points? Was there any OMG-why-did-I-pick-this moments? Or “were” there?
Sohaib: The moment my first copter crashed.
Me: Oh, how did it happen?
Sohaib: I was testing one day. I tried to flip. It was a success. Enthusiastically I wanted to do again. I was not quite lucky this time. You see, copters are different from planes. Now imagine that thing with the propellers facing downward.
Me: A dream falling at 9.81metres per second squared
Sohaib: *laugh* Yes, that was it.
Me: So, you had to start all over again? Buying new equipment and all
Sohaib: No, fortunately, alhumdulilah, alhumdulilah. Not the whole thing was damaged. I only had to buy parts of the frame again.
Me: Every failure comes with learning. What did you learn?
Sohaib: I learnt to spend more time on my simulator to learn to pilot a plane before piloting one actually. There are lots of simulators available. The one I used was AeroSim.
Me: What is the scope of future enhancement in your project?
Sohaib: To extend, I now need faculty supervisor. I have talked to Dr. Yasar from SMME (School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering). He is such a creative mind. I hope he accepts to supervise it. My basic area of interest is “swarm robotics”. Building this quad-copter was a step towards developing the understanding that will lead me to contribute in swarm robotics.
Me: What has been a greater learning experience? Class-room study or Project?
Sohaib: Project. Definitely.
Me: If there were one thing you could change about teaching methodology at SEECS what it would be?
Sohaib: That’s a tough question.
Me: Take your time.
Sohaib: *Thinking, Thinking* I would say that a number of teachers focus on memorization in a lot of areas whereas bringing in practical learning to the classroom would be much more educative. Teachers should look at Walter Lewin and see the way he teaches.
Me: Imagine you’re principal for a day. What would you be changing first?
Sohaib: Being in Dr. Arshad Ali’s shoes! Woah! That’s heavy! *laugh* There’s not much that I would be changing. SEECS is brilliant. NUST has given me a lot. NUST has been part of our family. My sister graduated from here with her project winning a gold medal. Infact, it was her who was setting goals for me and I had to compete. That’s a sibling thing.
Me: Being genius is in your genes?
Sohaib: I won’t say that.
Me: Okay let’s give some credit to the family environment then. I can see something there.
Sohaib: *laugh* you can say that. My father is an engineer and most importantly- a hobbyist. I have spent my childhood experimenting with him.
Me: See? I have a strong predicting power. *laugh* Anyhow, you were telling us about SEECS
Sohaib: Yes. There was just this one small incident during my freshmen year that left me disheartened for quite some time. I participated in an IST (Institute of Space and technology) event along with some university mates. Despite the seniors in team, I was leading the team and was really enthusiastic about it. The event policy said that if no one was able to complete the task in allocated time, the team most close to completion will be given the prize which was worth 1 lac. Luckily, it was our team. But when we claimed the prize money, they refused and released only 20% of the amount. We looked towards SEECS for support, but there was none. Some faculty members were willing to back us on personal level but officially there was nothing. So, I would say this one thing to the authorities at SEECS that please support your students in co-curricular activities, especially when they are participating in an event outside university.
Although, things have changed considerably over the last few years. Student now get support, but there’s room for improvement.
Me: Are you planning to take your copter to any event?
Sohaib: Oh yes, I am. Infact, I am leaving tomorrow for the Science Fair at GIKI.
Sohaib: No. You can do semester projects alone, but in real life it’s not a one-man show; you need a team.
Me: Anything else that you would like to tell our readers?
Sohaib: Sure. If you could mention my online store to your readers. This is my entrepreneurship venture. The aim is to provide the hobbyists and engineers of Pakistan with the latest development and robotics tools in the world. Electroboticshop carries many sorts of development boards, sensors and components good for student projects, hobbyist projects and robotics and engineering projects. You see there’s near to no trend of experimenting in our schools.
Me: That’s great. Do you intend to extend this to helping the high-school-ers develop intuition for science?
Sohaib: I am all time available for helping anyone on personal level, be it a project bug or anything else. Also, I have discovered that I’m not job-sort guy so I will be setting up my own company.
Me: I wish you all the best for all your ventures. It was a pleasure talking to you.
Sohaib: Pleasure is mine. Wish me luck for tomorrow’s competition.
Me: I am sure you’ll ace it.
Sohaib: Thank you.
The project won third prize in GIKI All Pakistan Science Fair. And here is the link of Sohaib I.Malik’s store: