Hamilton students head to Iceland to map caves with a drone in hopes their invention will be used in space

A team of students from McMaster University in Hamilton will soon head to Iceland, where they will set up camp near a series of underground lava tubes that they plan to map with a drone.

The drone uses hardware and software designed by the students, who hope that their technology can be used in space exploration in the future, to map underground areas.

There are about 25 students on the McMaster Deep-space Analogue Research Expedition (DARE) team. After a year of planning, five of them will be going to Iceland for about two weeks in August.

“It’s going to be really exciting to be the first people to actually make a digital map of these particular caves,” said Daniel Young, one of the students who went on the trip.

Michael Holden, the club’s president, said McMaster DARE is based on building and testing solutions to aerospace problems, one of which is mapping underground spaces.

“If a sensitive device or a group of astronauts goes into an underground cave or some other crevice on another planet, they don’t really know much because there’s no easy way to look inside,” said Holden, an engineering physics student.

WATCH | Watch Canary attach to a drone:

Michael Holden demonstrates Canary

Michael Holden, a McMaster University student and chair of the Deep-space Analogue Research Expedition team, demonstrates the drone he and his colleagues will use to map tunnels in Iceland.

The team’s solution, called Canary, would be able to fly in and send back data about the spaces in question, using sensors. Canary could also map areas using LiDAR (light detection and ranging), which measures distances.

“If we can create a system that can be implemented earlier, [explorers] “If you tell them what they’re interested in and what the potential dangers are, they’ll have a better idea of ​​what’s involved,” Holden told CBC Hamilton, along with team co-vice presidents Young and Harry Wu.

“You can think of it as the old saying ‘canary in the coal mine,’ that’s why it’s called Canary,” Holden said. “Send it in ahead of time, it gives them a heads up and an idea of ​​what’s going on.”

‘Lots of iteration… lots of learning’

Holden, Wu, Young and the two other McMaster DARE members will test Canary in Iceland, because the lava tubes there are geographically similar to caves on the moon or Mars.

The printed circuit boards are on a desk
Older versions of McMaster DARE boards for Canary, with the newest version on the right. (Justin Chandler/CBC)

Iceland’s geography has made it a popular location for analogue missionsrelating to experiments in environments similar to those in space.

The lava tubes DARE is going to are unnamed, but they are close to a large tunnel called Surtshellir, which is a two-hour boat ride from Reykjavik, Holden said.

Canary consists of a store-bought quadcopter drone and a custom-made plastic chassis to which the electrical components are attached.

Wu, the DARE electrician, showed off earlier versions of the circuit board the system will use, all smaller and sleeker than the previous ones.

“It’s a lot of iteration. It’s a lot of learning,” Wu said.

WATCH | How Canary makes a map:

Daniel Young shows how his team’s drone will map tunnels

Daniel Young, vice-chair of the McMaster Deep-space Analogue Research Expedition team, demonstrates how their Canary drone uses LiDAR to map spaces.

Software lead Young demonstrated the LiDAR component using his laptop, showing how the sensor tracks where objects are relative to the sensor and displays them on a map.

“We can trace the path the drone takes and then draw a map of what it sees,” the mechatronics student said.

Drone first tested at Hamilton’s Rattlesnake Point

The DARE group launched under a different name in 2021. The official McMaster student club has a membership that includes students from a variety of disciplines, such as software engineering and biotechnology, Holden said.

In addition to testing Canary, the expedition will also include at least one side project testing soil samples.

To simulate an exploration mission, the team will camp near the caves in Iceland. They partnered with a Canadian wilderness first aid company for training and have partners in Iceland who can help if needed.

The lava tubes they will map have only been mapped by hand, Holden said.

A round sensor connected to a laptop on a desk.
McMaster DARE will use a lidar sensor to map spaces using a drone. (Justin Chandler/CBC)

Although the tubes are nearly 18 feet tall in places, Holden said he will fly very carefully to avoid crashing the drone. He will purposefully fly in parallel rows, as if he were mowing the lawn.

He noted that the team had already conducted tests in the much narrower caves at Hamilton’s Rattlesnake Point.

“There are a few scratches on it from when we got close to walls earlier, which was nice, but nothing serious happened.”

Holden, Wu and Young say they are well prepared for the expedition with multiple redundancies. When asked what they were most nervous about, they all mentioned the small chance of catastrophic failure.

“[If] “The part I made doesn’t work, man, that would kill me,” Wu said. “We have spare parts, but just the thought that they all have some fundamental design flaw that we missed and then it shows up is terrifying to me.”

Holden said that there is a general sense of excitement.

“Having control over all of our security systems, our backup plans, and seeing it all come together… that’s awesome.”

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