#40 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 6          June 1993

A New Route Home—a Good Idea
by William Lund

Mr. Lund is the founder of Airborne Sampling Perspectives in Iola, Wisconsin. He has a Master's degree in Environmental Science and Policy and teaches high-school chemistry in his hometown.

Whether you call it divine guidance, fate, or karma, sometimes you have to believe that certain things are destined to happen.  The research project blossoming around me is one of those cases.

I like teaching chemistry, but I’m realistic enough to know it may not be enjoyable forever, so I want to be prepared to do something else that's useful.  This sentiment, together with an interest in environmental issues, pointed me toward the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Dr. Paul Sager's Perspectives class.  In 1987, Dr. Sager assigned me to write a practice thesis proposal for a Master's in Environmental Science and Policy.  I considered this redundant, and since I was working full time, I procrastinated in choosing a topic.  As fate would have it, this proposal became a focus of my life.

But I'm getting slightly ahead of myself here.  In 1987, I was commuting 75 miles each way to the university, along one of two routes.  Because of my love for aviation, nurtured since childhood, I usually chose the highway that passes the Green Bay airport.  My motive was simple: there's always something with wings to be seen.

The day I left Dr. Sager's class, newly burdened by the need to choose a practice thesis topic, I decided to get some different scenery and took the alternate route home.  This road crosses a long causeway in a heavily industrialized part of Green Bay.  That day, a southerly wind was pushing factory emissions right at me, and as I drove through the fumes, I began wondering what I was breathing.

By the time I arrived home, I had decided to use a remotely piloted aircraft to sample the composition of effluent plumes.

A Proposal Topic

I refined this idea into a Master's thesis and began working with chemistry Professor Ron Starkey, who knew about atmospheric sampling from his research at Hanford National Laboratory.  I was excited at the prospect of combining my fascination with aircraft with an elegant solution to an important pollution problem.  At present, the Environmental Protection Agency requires many pollution generators to monitor their own emissions with devices on the stack.  Although samples can be taken from full-size aircraft, it's rarely done because it costs anywhere from $800 to $1200 per hour.

In extensive computer searches, I found only one remotely relevant citation--a short, 10-year-old Russian paper about a sampling attempt that failed due to unsuitable sensing and sampling equipment.  I had apparently discovered a wide-open niche!

Knowing that I couldn’t afford to develop every component, I located some small collection pumps and sensors, which could operate by servo-actuated control.  I then needed a rugged, simple airplane capable of lifting a payload of about 2 kilograms, with internal volume large enough for at least one inflated plastic sample bag plus a pump system, yet small enough to fit into the rear of my small car.

I found my airplane—with an 81-inch wingspan, a 3-horsepower alcohol-fueled, two-cycle engine, and an empty weight of about four kilograms.  I assembled the kit but found that the wings were too fragile, so I designed and built new wings.  On my next test flight, it easily lifted a payload of nearly 5 kilograms.

No Problems With the Police

I planned a series of flights around campus, and arranged to release a simulated effluent plume of sulfur hexafluoride, a heavy, non-toxic tracer gas.  I flew the aircraft, equipped with servo-controlled pulse pump and gas collection bag, through the plume—and demonstrated the feasibility of grab sampling from the miniature plane.

In summer, 1989, I refitted my equipment for a series of sampling flights above outcroppings of uranium-bearing granite in central Wisconsin.  Since the dosimeter for radiation sampling was much smaller and lighter than my old pump, I used an aircraft with a 48-inch wingspan.  The whole gadget was simpler, so I could start sampling five minutes after arriving on location.  For runways, I used public highways.

To prevent local authorities from getting suspicious as I hauled my equipment out of my car on the roadside, I silk-screened some shirts, ordered a hat and made magnetic vehicle signs to make me look "official."  It must have worked:  I was never hassled.

Since then, I've adapted ever-smaller sensors and pump-sampling units.  New, specialized sensors that detect a single chemical allow me to log data from multiple tests during one flight.  Other miniature sensors allow me to track the temperature and altitude at the moment of sampling.

Although airborne sampling is possible without my system, it's impractically expensive.  Now, at least theoretically, every one of the quarter-million or more radio-control flight enthusiasts could sample air--at a cost just a fraction that of using a full-sized aircraft. 

Too Inexpensive!

Perhaps that was just the problem.  When I started a company to commercialize this technology in 1989, my goal was to contribute to environmental safety by increasing our knowledge about who's putting what into the atmosphere. I mistakenly thought an affordable technology would be quickly lapped up by the pollution-control industry.

Like most inventors, I've found that what is obviously valuable to me may seem obscure or trivial to others.  As one researcher told me, "People would take this concept more seriously if it were more expensive!"

And that summarizes my greatest hurdle:  People think of miniature, remotely-guided aircraft as toys, not tools—and a sampling technique that is relatively simple and inexpensive must therefore be worthless.

This attitude toward remote-controlled aircraft is finally changing.  For many years, Israel has pioneered their military use as surveillance aircraft.  Now, the U.S. army is catching on; two models were used in Operation Desert Storm.  One was so threatening that a squad of Iraqi soldiers tried to surrender to it!  

Since the initial publication of my work in the Journal of Airways Management  in 1990, I have answered inquiries from all over the world, including one from a manufacturer of larger remotely-piloted vehicles.  I was thrilled to be invited by the Russian National Academy of Sciences in Moscow to discuss a joint project.

My latest model uses a seven-channel receiver to operate four flight controls, leaving three channels to operate a pump and valve that feeds samples to three tubes or pouches.

As an improvement over present ground-based systems, which may not always be in the pollution plume, my device has obvious applications to pollution control.  I imagine any industry would think harder about its emissions if it suspected that a tiny aircraft might be snooping around downwind of the factory.

As I think back on my discovery, one peculiar fact stands out—had I not broken my commuting routine, I probably wouldn't have come nose-to-nose with this opportunity.

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