Summer 2008 Issue

BIG BLUE Projects:
One Student’s Perspective

The spring issue of CQ VHF focused on the BIG BLUE
flexible-wing project. Chandler explains what his involvement
has meant to him both as a student and in his profession.

By Garrett Chandler, KY1GDC

Members of the design team after presenting a design review to top-level engineers at ILC, Dover. (Photos courtesy of the author)

It is astounding the effects that volunteering a little extra time to work on an extra-curricular school project can have on someone. What started as a class project turned into much more than that—both for the remainder of the semester in which I first got involved, as well as for the time that has passed since then. There is no doubt that the BIG BLUE project has had a lasting effect on me personally and professionally.

It all began when I was taking an elective electrical engineering course in microcomputer systems design at the University of Kentucky. At the time I was working on my Masters of Science degree in Biosystems Engineering. A project-based class, the nucleus of our activities was a project in its second year—BIG BLUE. Our task was to design and construct the control and communication systems to enable the high-altitude test scheduled for less than four months from the first day I learned of the project. It was daunting, to say the least, but the excitement of being involved in something as great as this project promised to be was too much to pass up.

Before long I was put in charge of leading the design of the airborne system architecture. Working closely with the software development team once the hardware had been completed, I was able to learn an immeasurable amount about software design and engineering in a team environment. Before it all was said and done, those volunteered hours turned into 12-hour blocks at a time. As a team we consumed many liters of Mountain Dew soda, and on more than one occasion the sun rose before we left the campus.

In brief, what emerged from the other end of our development cycle was a multiprocessor system with some good-enough checks and balances to ensure the highest chance of success. A mix of three processors served as the auto pilot to the aircraft, master system controller, and a system supervisor, respectively. This electrical spine controlled high-pressure inflation valves, servos, a parachute deployment system, high-current control of the video transmitter, and a ballistic cutter. All very fun stuff! In addition, we chose to use something new to me for our communication systems—amateur radio.

I had never heard of this amateur radio stuff before. As I learned more and more, I realized that I was missing out on a ton of fun. To officialize and legalize my involvement I was in need of an amateur radio license. Some studying and a few multiple-choice questions later and the callsign KI4IHG was mine.

The aircraft design ended up with two communication radios—Kenwood TH-D7s, to be specific. Those built-in TNCs saved us quite a bit of weight. One of these was used for bi-directional communication with the ground station and the other was dedicated to beaconing the reports coming from a GPS receiver.

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