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Vulture 2 strapped to speeding van before delicate brain surgery

Spaceplane awaits autopilot tuning atop shed-built test platform

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On Sunday, Pixhawk autopilot brain surgeon Linus Penzlien touches down in Spain ahead of some serious Vulture 2 spaceplane wrangling.

Working with APM:Plane lead developer Andrew Tridgell, Linus will be hewing custom Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator (LOHAN) mission parameters from the living code.

These include an "ascend wait" mode, wherein the Pixhawk twiddles its thumbs while the fantastical flying truss soars majestically to motor ignition altitude, "launch detect" and subsequent autopilot activation into flight mode parameters and, sensationally, a magnetic tree detection and emergency avoidance algorithm.

As anyone who's ever launched a High Altitude Ballooning (HAB) mission knows, anything falling from the heavens will be magically drawn to an arboreal presence, even if it's the only tree in 10,000 square kilometres, so we're absolutely determined to make sure our spaceplane is prepared to defeat the mischievous forces of Mother Nature.

Andrew and Linus have already done some remote-control preparatory work for the task ahead, including getting our onboard Raspberry Pi / Pi in the Sky rig to talk to the Pixhawk, so we're in good shape to get stuck in.

This programming groundwork has proved highly entertaining, at least for hapless bystanders like me, who can only sit and watch while Andrew in Canberra and Linus in Hamburg tinker with the Vulture 2's brain.

There has been, however, some old school shed-based work to be done ahead of Linus's arrival. As part of the systems testing regime we'll be strapping the aircraft to the roof of a van and taking it for a spin.

My son Rui - he of Paper Aircraft Released Into Space (PARIS) "bloke in a dress" fame - suggested we strap the Vulture 2 to a custom frame which could be easily mounted onto a roof rack. That way, we could simply mount the entire frame with the plane already attached, and just as easily whip it off the van roof without loads of faffing about.

A cunning plan, so cue some bits of wood...

The Vulture 2 laid out on some wooden supports

...and in a couple of hours we had a provisional set-up:

The Vulture 2 on a wooden frame atop the van's roof rack

To protect the aircraft's underside, we were able to acquire some professional-grade anti-slip matting, with a fetching butterfly motif as an added aesthetic bonus...

The finished frame with padding for the Vulture 2

...and with the aircraft secured and a couple of GoPros thrown into the mix...

The Vulture 2 tied to the frame prior to strapping to the top of the van

...the whole thing could be lashed down ready to roll:

The completed frame and Vulture 2 atop the van

Lovely. For your viewing pleasure, try a couple of stills from the vid cameras as the van hit 100km/h on a swift test run:

Two stills from video grabbed on the pair of GoPro cameras

It's a pretty rough ride up there, so we've already proved that everything that needs to be glued/bolted/lashed down is up to the job.

For the full-fat test, we'll be running the Pixhawk to check its GPS, airspeed indicator, radio, etc, plus ensuring the Picam and Pi in the Sky are working properly. That'll be next Thursday or Friday, depending on brain surgery progress, so watch this space. ®.


More from the lovely LOHAN:

  • You can find full LOHAN coverage right here.
  • If you're new to LOHAN, seek out our mission summary for enlightenment.
  • There are photos our our magnificent Vulture 2 spaceplane here, and detailed structural plans here.
  • For your further viewing pleasure, we have all our photographic material stored on Flickr.
  • Our LOHAN and Paper Aircraft Released Into Space (PARIS) videos live on YouTube.
  • We sometimes indulge in light consensual tweeting, as you can see here.

LOHAN - A Special Projects Bureau production in association with...

  • 3T RPD logo
  • University of Southampton logo
  • Applied Vacuum Engineering logo
  • Escher Technologies
  • Flashpoint Fireworks logo
  • HAB Supplies logo
  • Rock 7 logo
  • Random Engineering logo
  • Space Graphic Solutions logo
  • 3D Robotics logo
  • Edge Research Laboratory logo


Paper Aircraft Released Into Space

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