Tracking Lights

There were some nerves for Furman physics professor John Conrad and his students when they sent their DJI Phantom 2 drone into the air for the first time—and that was on a sunny day over the flat, treeless rugby field, for really no reason at all other than seeing if they could. A “leap of faith,” he called it.

That was nothing, however, compared to the adrenaline surge Conrad got during a phone call from Furman Center for Teaching and Learning associate director Mike Winiski after he saw the video of what Conrad’s team had done.

“So I said, let me get this straight: You want me to fly at night in a high-crime neighborhood?” Conrad remembers with a smile from his second-story office in Townes Science Center. “And he said, ‘yeah, I really want to do that.’”

A project in Winiski’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class had taken a turn for the unexpectedly complicated. They needed help from above.

“(I told John) we were trying to refine our model for showing what streetlights look like at night. We could test your night-flying skills. Ha-ha. And he said let’s do it,” Winiski said. “I was just kidding. I didn’t think he actually could.”

Conrad couldn’t, in fact, but the drone could if he and his students programmed it correctly. Using GPS data, it will fly anywhere and any way, right down to elevation and speed. That skill set became a critical component of an undertaking that evolved from a straightforward academic assignment to collaboration between multiple Furman departments, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, and residents of the New Washington Heights and Poe Mill neighborhoods as part of an ambitious effort to revitalize the Poinsett District.

Conrad has also entered the drone’s work into three contests: The InnovisionAwards Program, “South Carolina’s premier organization dedicated to the advancement of technology in the state,” the Drone Social Innovation Award, organized by the Drone User Group Network, and Drone Prize 2014, a “project of AUVSI, the world’s largest non-profit organization devoted exclusively to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community.”

The latter two carry $10,000 prizes, with the winners awards based on “the most socially beneficial documented use of a drone platform.” That happens to be exactly what sets Furman’s effort apart.

Winiski’s students initially aspired to map the streetlights in the two neighborhoods to give community organizers an idea of the situation. It sounded easy enough, but they soon discovered it wasn’t as simple as marking a location on a map.

They had to find the lights. Then they had to see if they were working, and if they were, how well? To get this initial information, Winiski and students Connor Chatterton ’15 and Steve Nelson put feet on the ground and talked to residents. They learned that because the neighborhoods aren’t in the city limits, property owners are required to pay for their own streetlights.

“When you look at Poe Mill, you can see that the streetlight distribution is the result of individual decisions over time. You’ve got these clusters over here, and then you’ve got these really poorly lit areas over here,” Winiski said. “There’s just no rhyme or reason because it wasn’t planned at a community level.”

As a result, many areas were dark at night, and a top priority is to thwart crime by eliminating these unlit areas. To do that, they needed a plan. To formulate a plan, they needed data.

That’s when the Furman teams realized they could make a real difference.

“(When we first went to the neighborhoods) we told residents that we were there doing a school project and that we wouldn’t be long,” Connor Chatterton ’15, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., majoring in Earth and Environmental Sciences, said. “But after Mike and I sat down with some of them, it turned into a social project because they thought we were there to help them, and then it turned out that we did help them.”

Chatterton and Nelson realized after some frustrating attempts they couldn’t create a reliable algorithm to represent the true effect of the existing lights from what they had been able to observe. That’s when Winiski thought to employ Conrad’s drone to take pictures of the lights from above.

“At first when we dropped the streetlights onto the map we tried to put a halo around them, and we realized it didn’t do our map justice. So we tried to figure out how to project what the light realistically looked like. We tried multiple equations which didn’t work out,” Chatterton said. “We were presented with the idea that we could use the drone to check whether our algorithm was correct, and if it wasn’t correct we could tweak it by comparing our map with the map that the drone took a picture of. Which was kind of cool.”

Conrad and students William Lewis ’16 and Chase Fiedler ’16 were excited at the opportunity to program the drone for a complex mission involving multiple stops and the dodging of things like trees. They integrated older GIS technology with the new autonomous drone system using iPad Ground Station hardware and software to set up the flight and the images taken with a GoPro Hero 3+ video camera.

“If we had gone out the first day we tried to fly it, there was no way it would have happened. I think we went out three or four times doing practice flights around the Furman rugby pitch. It was an exercise in getting things to work,” Lewis said.

The goal for the residents of the two neighborhoods is to get non-functioning lights turned on, a blueprint for future light installation, and most importantly, a community-based funding model. If Furman wins any prize money, Winiski says the school would like to keep helping.

“I try to find leads on student projects that can help somebody either in their research or some community project,” he said, noting that he learned of the neighborhoods’ plight from Furman psychology professor Kerstin Blomquist who is on the Poinsett Revitalization Committee. “The prize specifies you can do whatever you want (with the money). If they’re going to community fund the streetlights, we’d like to donate the money into that tax fund. If my math is right, it could perhaps help the community fund their street lights for a year.”

Conrad said he didn’t want their drone’s work to “to be a solution looking for a problem” and was happy to see tangible results.
“We’re not doing anything that the military isn’t doing all the time. What I feel good about is the community aspect of this stuff. All those men and women (in the neighborhoods), it was impressive to watch them asking questions. Physics, math, computer science— they really cared about it and were amazed that Furman cared about what was going on there. It’s a horribly underserved population. So if we only draw attention to that, on a certain level that’s pretty good.”

Part of the Drone Prize selection process involves the number of votes entries receive via their own social media campaigns. Vote for Furman’s entry, and follow the contest on Twitter @droneprize.