Amador Valley High School's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles team shook the robotics world last month, earning second in the international AUVSI Student Unmanned Aerial Systems Competition held in Maryland.
The first-time high school team bested 69 robotics teams, including prestigious collegiate UAV programs from Cornell, UCLA, Duke, and UC San Diego.
The Amador UAVs team drone Boreas, named after the Greek God of the powerful north wind, is a fully-custom octocopter, designed throughout 2021 and built during the winter and spring of 2022. For vice president and electrical development lead Kai Gottschalk, though, Boreas really represents the culmination of "a three-year journey."
1,000 hours, 32 students, one drone
Originally founded in 2018 by then sophomore Sungje Park, Amador UAVs quickly evolved from a small fledging club into one of the school's most popular robotics teams.
After crashing their first plane, the team moved on to kit drones ("Planes are difficult, aerodynamics are a thing," joked Gottschalk), which led to their discovery of autopilot software and subsequent experimentations with constructing and programming their own drone.
Their biggest constraint by far had always been money. Lacking the school funding to purchase building materials, the UAV team reached out to companies for sponsorships and expanded their community outreach to acquire necessary equipment.
When the SUAS competition was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Amador UAVs began offering valuable live streaming services, using their drones to film and broadcast events ranging from the Amador Marching Dons shows to the 2022 graduation ceremony.
"We've been able to receive a bunch from the generous donors out there, but also give back to the community. Our team has been super passionate about (robotics) for so many years that it's really come back as a benefit," Gottschalk said.
This year's UAVs team of 32 students were each sorted to one of three divisions -- software, electromechanical and business -- and worked together in a garage to build Boreas from scratch before the June 20 deadline.
"Each of these students brings a different and complementary perspective and skill to the team, and that is what makes this team so good," team coach Ram Sriram said.
"The amount of technical knowledge and theoretical depth they had to learn is formidable even for students in college, let alone a group of high school students. And they did this all by themselves, leveraging internet resources and the open source community," he added.
Each team member also had to juggle the academic rigor and demands of school with their UAV extracurricular commitment.
When it comes to the total number of hours the students put in, Gottschalk says "it's definitely up in the thousands."
"The number of hours we had to put in the weeks leading up to the competition was incredible. I hope that next year we won't feel that same time crunch, but the way we pulled it off this year was absolutely brilliant," rising junior Aayush Gupta said.
Facing the competition
The international SUAS competition, held on the St. Mary's College of Maryland campus, challenged each team to develop, build, and demonstrate a UAV to be put through various real-world missions, testing abilities including obstacle avoidance, object detection, classification and localization, mapping, air delivery, and autonomous flight, among others.
At the competition, Amador UAVs still ran into a litany of problems involving Boreas: the humidity messed with the sensors on the drone gimbal, the unmanned ground vehicle (land-based counterpart to the drone) crashed days before the competition, and their entire imaging stack stopped working the day of the competition, said senior software path planner Ethan Kuo.
Nonetheless, the team pulled through, even holding all-nighters to fix the technical issues and run final test flights.
On competition day, Gottschalk remembers carrying Boreas out to the testing runway right before it took off, and wishing it good luck, realizing that could be the last time he sees the drone in one piece.
"One of the most vivid moments of the trip was probably when the drone was coming down, probably 10 feet above the ground, and we're like 'Wow, this thing came back in one piece.' It hadn't crashed. It did its thing for the most part pretty well, so it was definitely exciting to see it come home," Gottschalk said.
No one in the Amador team, however, predicted Boreas's performance would bag them second place in the world.
Going into the awards ceremony, parent chaperone Sriram was confident they would finish in the top 15. But as the judges started counting down from the top 10 and Amador's name had yet to be called, his hopes diminished.
By the time fourth place was announced, senior Ethan Kuo started texting his parents that the team might not place at all. Fellow senior Ishan Duriseti "lost all hope" and stopped paying attention to the announcement screen.
That's why when lead judge Tom Sanders declared Amador the second-place finisher, the team could not believe their ears.
"I turned to look at everyone else, mouth gaping open, while the entire table shook from the combined and synchronized jump that swept over our team. The last week of sleep deprivation and all-nighters, annoyed arguments and improbable last minute clutches all caught up to me. With the largest, most genuine smile on my face, I cried," mechanical division member Dylan Kwong recalled.
Afterwards, the team called and notified UAV founder Park, now a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, of their accomplishment. Park was just as shocked -- and proud.
"I was speechless. Even just a year ago, we would gawk at how much the top university teams were able to achieve and to know that a bunch of high schoolers were able to create something better is amazing," said Park. "Looking at the growth the team has seen just in this past year, I am very confident that Amador UAVs will continue to give these university a run for their money."
'A crazy ride'
Between cooking meals, hanging out at the beach, lighting campfires and sharing a single shower among 14 people, the competition trip proved to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding events the UAV team members ever experienced.
"We have been through so much together, from all the crashes in the past, things not working, conflicts between ourselves, and some much-needed success here and there," Duriseti said. "We spend time together outside of the club because at the end of the day, we are as much friends as we are a team. We share inside jokes and many, many memories that will be cherished for a lifetime."
The graduated seniors will leave behind a rich legacy for the next generations to build upon. For the incoming underclassmen members, Gottschalk's biggest piece of advice is to not only learn new robotics skills, but also keep their passion and interest in robotics alive.
"After we spent so many years trying different things, all sorts of mistakes left and right, you should really just be interested in it so you don't lose the drive when you get to failure, which you'll have plenty of," he said. "Don't be afraid to try some new things."
Even when the odds were stacked against them, Amador UAVs' performance in Maryland redefined what a financially limited, first-time public high school team can achieve at a competition of high caliber.
"It really showed us this doesn't just take the money, it takes the drive and the passion. We gotta make it work, take whatever opportunities we have and make the most of the possibilities we're given," Gottschalk said. "In the end, it's just been quite a crazy ride."
This summer, the 2022 UAV officer team will begin training younger members as they work their way towards leading the club, growing the team at the start of the 2022-23 school year, and preparing for more competitions.
View a photo story of the team's competition trip here.