CHAMPAIGN — These drones are designed to operate weightless, but the math and science behind them is anything but.
Four University of Illinois students, who are seniors and members of a student organization called Moon Goons, were at Stratton Leadership and Microsociety Magnet School on Monday and Tuesday to talk to students about drones and experiments they plan to do with them in a zero-gravity environment.
"We want to inspire students in math and science," UI electrical engineering major Sunny Gautam said.
The Moon Goons will visit Johnson Space Center at the end of May and will do experiments through NASA's Reduced Gravity Education Flight Program, which will allow them to do experiments on a modified Boeing 727-200 that by flying up and down simulates zero-gravity conditions.
Tuesday, they taught students about drones' video capabilities, about how they can recognize faces and even detect an infant's heartbeat through video.
The UI students also explained their experiment to students, showing them a dock they made for a drone using PVC pipe. The students are writing a program to dock the drone in zero gravity.
"That's why you guys have got to study math, to be able to do all this cool stuff," UI electrical engineering major Alejandro Gomez told the Stratton students.
The dock restricts the drone to two degrees of freedom, which means it can rotate counter-clockwise or clockwise, and move up and down within the dock.
One degree of freedom is when an object is constrained to one motion, and in general, degrees of freedom describe how many ways you can move, UI computer science major Sam Liu told students.
On the aircraft, the students will surround their dock with a clear box, just in case something goes wrong and the drone breaks apart.
The Moon Goon members also taught students about brakes made with magnets and electrical currents. Roller coasters use what are called "eddy current" brakes and so will the UI students with the drone and the dock, using metal fins, said UI material science engineering major Linas Sulas.
Stratton students got to try a model of an eddy current brake by first dropping a magnet on a pole through a PVC pipe, which offered no resistance, and then through a copper pipe, which dramatically slowed the magnet down.
Sulas said he enjoys talking to students about the Moon Goons' work and said educational outreach was a part of the proposal the group submitted to NASA.
"It's fun to see where they come from and how much they know," Sulas said, adding that the latter is more than one might think.
Stratton students also got the chance to fly a drone and try to land it on top of a box, using a tablet to control it.
Stratton fourth-grader Lexi Gunter said she enjoyed that part.
"I thought it was pretty cool," she said.
She and classmates Gloria Park and Maya Huel, who are also fourth-graders, also liked learning about how drones can use video to detect faces and how the UI students showed them how spinning around with water in the bucket can be done without spilling, because various scientific properties at work.
Gunter, Park, Huel and the other Stratton students at the Moon Goons' presentation this week are all a part of MicroSTEM University.
At Stratton, the magnet program runs like a small society, and MicroSTEM University is a business, or venture, in which students teach their peers science, math, engineering and technology.
Teachers Katie Snyder and Zanne Newman run MicroSTEM University, and Snyder said demonstrations like the one this week help students see real-world applications of those subjects.
Snyder said students are often able to see science as a hands-on subject, as they've taught their peers to make polymer slime and mirrors. But the Moon Goons' emphasis on math is less standard.
"This is a cool application," Snyder said.