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ICESat-2: EPO Hexacopter Engineering Challenge

ICESat-2: EPO Hexacopter Engineering Challenge

Introducing the 2015 ICESat-2 Mission Hexacopter Engineering Challenge Introduction

The ICESat-2 Mission will host the 2015 ICESat-2 Mission Hexacopter Engineering Challenge at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on April 17, 2015. This challenge will task the students with measuring the height of Earth around us, from tree canopies to bodies of water. This challenge will be the first of its kind in a yearly series of ICESat-2 engineering challenge events.

Through this challenge, students will investigate and build instruments similar to the laser altimeter that will be flown onboard the NASA Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat- 2) spacecraft, launching in 2017. The spacecraft will carry the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), a multi-beam visible photon-counting altimeter.

About ICESat-2

Ice comes in many forms here on Earth, like mountain glaciers and frozen lakes, but most of it is found near the North Pole and South Pole. With temperatures on our planet warming up, many of these icy areas are melting.

ICESat-2 is a satellite mission that will measure the height of Earth's ice-covered regions to track melting and other changes. From space, it will also take the height of other features of our planet, including trees and shrubs, lakes and buildings.

The instrument onboard ICESat, ATLAS, will take the elevation of the world's ice sheets, sea ice, clouds, vegetation, and even oceans. With this data, Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) will be developed to get a bigger and better picture of the height of our planet, including the mass balance of ice sheets, global tree canopy height, and sea ice thickness at the poles.

Students who are selected to participate in this challenge, through a proposal and selection process, will design and build hexacopter multirotors that will be able to create a DEM of a specific area within a pre-determined amount of time. Each team will perform two runs, attempting to create two DEMs. Ideally, the second DEM will be of a higher resolution than the first, since the teams will have time to adjust their designs. Students will also submit technical and educational reports describing in detail their efforts throughout the competition process.

You can learn more about the ICESat-2 Mission at:

Technical Information

Due to recent increases in battery energy density and electronic motor, portable multicopter rotorcraft have become both technologically and economically viable within the past few years. This has been accompanied by an abundance of both hobbyist and professional rotorcraft hardware, spanning from quadcopters to octacopters at a price point of just a few hundred dollars. As a result, these rotorcraft are able to fill the gap between aerial and satellite sensing technologies in an economically feasible manner.

For this competition, we will supply a basic set of rotorcraft hardware that can be utilized for autonomously generating DEMs, constructed out of commercial off-the-shelf hardware. This platform will be suitable for academic projects looking to expand from a basic digital elevation mapping framework, allowing concepts to be developed in competitions that university groups can participate in. Specifically, we will supply the following:

  • 3DR Y6 Frame -- hexacopter (primary platform)
  • ArduPilot -- open-source autonomous control system
  • Laser Rangefinder -- sensor to detect elevation levels
  • Assembly Instructions

As a base platform for the hexacopter, the 3DR Y6 Frame (see below) provides dedicated mounts for a GoPro camera and a precision GPS, while remaining portable and light-weight. Constructed out of lightweight aluminum and equipped with six rotors, this platform supports a payload of up to 2.5 kg. Each 850 kV rotor is equipped with a 10 inch long fiber-filled propeller. A 5300mAh 4S (14.8V) lithium polymer battery powers the electronics, for a maximum runtime of up to 30 minutes.

Hexacopter image

For the electronics control framework, we have selected the open-source ArduPilot platform. Not only does it support autonomous control of multicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, traditional helicopters, and even ground rovers, but it is also based off of the popular Arduino microcontroller platform, which is well-known for being intuitive and easily accessible to new users. The ArduPilot platform utilizes the same Atmel ATMega2560 microcontroller as the Arduino, but also incorporates many on-board sensors necessary for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including an accelerometer, barometer, compass, and gyroscope. In addition, it also includes digital I/O ports for interfacing with a GPS, telemetry downlink, battery monitor, and multiple servos. This specific control board is known as the ArduPilotMega (APM), and is currently at revision 2.6.

As this platform is not equipped with an integrated laser rangefinder, we have chosen to attach a third party laser distance meter, allowing for measurements up to a range of 50m. This produces an overall solution that is both lightweight and compact, in addition to being bus-powered directly by the primary APM board.

About the challenge

The competition will have different levels of challenges, including a secret challenge, for each team to achieve. There will be a baseline set of requirements that each team must achieve. There will be additional challenges the teams may strive to achieve to gain additional points.

The baseline level will require each team to launch their hexacopter, collect sufficient data to construct a DEM of the same given area, and return and land their hexacopter at the starting position under 10 minutes. There will be a second 15 minute "grave" period after the 10 minutes is complete: those who do not return their hexacopter to the starting position in 10 minutes and 15 seconds will receive zero points for that run. Each team will have two attempts.

There will be a designated area consisting of different terrains (e.g. water, grass, forest, etc.). Teams will be required to fly their hexaacopter within a given area and collect data to produce a DEM of that area. Those who successfully create two DEMs will naturally receive more points. Higher resolution DEMs will receive bonus points. Fully autonomous operation (i.e. the hexacopter is never controlled by the operator during the time window of either attempt) will receive bonus points.

As mentioned, there will be a secret challenge as part of the event. This challenge will not be revealed until the day of the competition. Teams successfully completing this secret challenge will earn additional bonus points to add to their overall scores.

Who can enter?

  • The contest is open to undergraduate college students.
  • Teams may consist of 1-5 students AND a university mentor/instructor
  • Based on the type of challenge, the ICESat-2 team recommends that a team consist of students from various disciplines, including engineering, Earth and space sciences, computer science, technology, graphic art, etc.

Rules of the event

  • There will be up to 30 teams in the competition
  • If your team is selected to participate in the challenge, you will receive a hardware kit that contains all the necessary components to build your hexacopter and payload.
  • You will receive your challenge hardware approximately 6 months before the challenge competition.
  • NASA is not responsible for costs for the teams to travel and participate in the challenge competition. All costs will be assumed by the participants.
  • *Please note If you are selected to participate in the challenge and you receive the hardware components, you are expected to take part in the April 2015 competition. If you are not present at the competition, you will be required to return to NASA ALL of the challenge hardware that was sent to you.

How do I submit an application?

Submission for participation to the 2015 ICESat-2 Hexacopter Engineering Challenge requires the full completion of the application at

When is the deadline?

The deadline for application submission for the 2015 ICESat-2 Hexacopter Engineering Challenge is September 12, 2014, 11:59PM EST.

How will the applications be reviewed and selected?

The ICESat-2 Education and Public Outreach and Science Mission teams will thoroughly review the applications. Based upon the answers submitted in the application form, an internal review will be done in order to select the most qualified applicants.

How will the selected challenge teams be notified?

Selections will be made and selected applicants will be notified by September 28, 2014, 11:59PM EST via email address submitted on application form.

At this time, the applicants may be required to sign a Submission Release and/or a Waiver Form.

Milestones for the challenge competition

  • September 28, 2014 -- All selected teams will be notified
  • October 15, 2014 -- All teams will receive their hexacopter and hardware
  • January 15, 2015 -- First report due from teams. This report will highlight the testing and preparation phase of the challenge.
  • April 15, 2015 -- 2015 ICESat-2 Hexacopter Engineering Challenge to take place at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
  • May 15, 2015 -- Final report on entire competition from testing phase to competition is due from teams.
  • June 1, 2015 -- Winner announced and contacted.

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