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Column: My summer at COSMOS UCSD

California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science, known as COSMOS, is a four-week intensive summer residential program. Students apply to one of the four University of California’s COSMOS campuses: U.C. Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego other UC Santa Cruz. Each campus has many specialized topics in which students apply for. This summer, I had the privilege to attend the first in-person COSMOS program since 2019.

This year at COSMOS, due to it being back in-person, the rules and regulations were a lot stricter and a lot of the activities were a bit disorganized. However, over time, we were given more and more freedom to explore the campus and visit different places on our own accord. In addition, living together with so many people over a month-long period of time allowed me to make connections with my fellow outstanding students. I was also able to learn a lot from the residential assistants at the program, as they were all still college students which made it easy for us to relate with each other.

I attended the COSMOS UC San Diego program’s new cluster: Hacking 4 Oceans. The goal for this cluster was to convert a stock RC boat to a surface unmanned autonomous vehicle, or UAV, using affordable yet quality hardware parts. Then we would take the autonomous boats and have them drag a buoy around the nearby Miramar Lake to collect, visualize, model, and analyze water quality data, including temperature, total dissolved solids, and pH levels.

Because Cluster 13 was a new cluster added this year, there wasn’t a curriculum, and it was instead more like a college research project where us students would research, build, and program the boats ourselves while the professors would give important lectures every once in a while. Due to this, my classmates and I were able to learn important skills very quickly compared to other clusters as we paved the path for the following years of Hacking 4 Oceans.

During the first week, we learned important Computer-aided Design, or CAD skills as well as the basis of project management. This was also when the project details were given and when tasks were divided up. Along with five others, I worked on reconstructing the RC boat to become an autonomous vehicle. In the following weeks, my team went through a lot of ups and downs as we researched, debugged, and worked with unfamiliar technology.

The microcontroller that we started off using was the LUX HD H7, which is specifically a flight controller, something used for autonomous drones. After researching the pinout diagrams and learning how to solder on rows of pins to the board, we started working on different components of the boat.

One of the key parts in getting this project working is being able to relay information between the boat and the computer on shore. The way we did this was through a pair of telemetry radios and a software called Mission Planner. Mission Planner is an application that allows for the user to chart an autonomous route and have the boat run its course.

At first though, no matter what we tried, the radios wouldn’t pair, making it impossible for the computer and boat to communicate with each other. However, we later discovered that the connection between the radios depended on their air speed, net ID, and firmware. In order to pair the radios, we configured the settings of the radios in Mission Planner by changing the net ID, airspeed, and firmware to match with the other radio.

Another important part of the boat is the GPS. Initially, wiring the GPS proved to be a challenge. Two of the GPS wires were black, with only one as ground wire. After opening the GPS, we found that the thicker black wire represented ground. Later, we wired the GPS to the board but made the mistake of connecting receiving with each other and transmitting wires together, when were supposed to connect receiving with transmitting. This would cause the receiver port to be linked up with the other receiving port instead of a transmitting port, and no signal would be found.

These were relatively advanced pieces of hardware that none of us had used before. So inevitably there were some mistakes, one of which was overloading the board with a 12.4 V LiPo battery which instantly fried the board. During pool test days we had also broken the propeller once and gotten important pieces of hardware wet. This led to us designing our own propellers and rudders, which ended up proving to be extremely useful. We also ended up designing waterproof boxes for the hardware pieces that we couldn’t afford getting wet and painted some of the hardware with waterproofing chemicals.

Using the LUX flight controller, we were extremely close to finishing. However, due to time constraints and some motor connection issues with the LUX flight controller that we couldn’t fix in time, we switched over to the official PixHawk flight controller which was more plug and play. This was far easier to use, and we were able to complete our task in a mere two days. Although this was a lot easier to use, I am still grateful for the opportunity to have used a more complicated flight controller because of how much I learned, not just the technical aspects of it, but also how to persevere through the arduous debug and research process to ultimately achieve our end goal.

Finally on the day of our lake test at Miramar Lake, we tested our boats and buoys. During the test we ran into a couple of problems. Sometimes the water would sway heavily, causing the boat’s radio signal to be below the water line. This meant that the signal would become inconsistent and the boat would stop in the middle of its course. Despite this though, we still got a couple of great runs in. It was great to see the results of our hard work over the past 2 to 3 weeks actually pay off.

Then, after collecting the data, we spent the last week of camp creating a presentation summarizing the work that we had done and the results of the lake test. In addition, with some extra time, we were able to fix some things that we didn’t have enough time to fix before the lake test. We also created a tutorial on every single step that we took to get the autonomous functions working and then ultimately created a portfolio on Github of all the teams and their work on the project.

These four weeks were one of the most exciting 4 weeks of my life, and being able to stay at the campus of a school like UC San Diego was a great experience. I was able to not only learn a lot of knowledge, but also make many new friends and establish good relationships with professors and current college students. I would definitely recommend applying for COSMOS to anyone who is interested in STEM and wants to see what life is like on a college campus.

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