Thursday, January 17, 2013

Stop #2: PNNL

Today was spent at Pacific Northwest National Labs, where I got to meet folks whose names I've known for a while, who did some of the best known prior work on demand response.  Once again, a damned good visit, with a lot of intense technical back and forth and possibilities for the future.

Beyond the professional part of the day, an interesting side note for me was seeing the Tri-Cities area again.  Richland, the location of PNNL, is where the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was set up during World War II, because they needed an isolated location to make plutonium and other radioactive nasties.  They're still there, slowly drifting towards the Columbia River, and in the years since, Richland has sprouted a great many organizations related to government and energy one way or another.  I was last there about 15 years ago, as an undergraduate on the MIT Aerial Robotics Team.  We were participating in a DOE-sponsored autonomous flying vehicle competition that was held next door to Hanford, at the training site for the firefighters who might have to deal with those horrifying hazards, and man did that place have the best props for a search and rescue contest, including 50-foot flame jets and tumbled train cars.

It was a huge amount of fun, going out there and working through the summer nights to try to get our helicopter finished and working properly.  In the end, we, like most of the teams, were never able to fly autonomously at all.  A number of teams couldn't even get off the ground---typically, the ones working on novel vehicle designs, rather than adapting a hobbyist vehicle.  The first year that I was there, we might have been able to, but we were felled by the heat: it was 100 degrees out, and much more right near the asphalt, and our helicopter had nylon gears driving its tail rotor, which softened and gave way while it was 30 feet in the air doing its startup checklist under remote control by our safety pilot.  The reason helicopters have tail rotors is to make sure the rotor spins and not the body: when the gears gave out, it came whirling down out of the sky, and it was only the great skill of our pilot that allowed him to autorotate it into a controlled crash.  The second year, we'd lost all of our good controls people to real, paying research projects, and the helicopter never got off the ground.  Fond memories and good lessons, but ultimately no success.

And yet: somehow, a paper came out of our failures and was published.  So far, it has gathered 4 citations.  Let that keep me humble as an author.

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