Like a lot of people, I have been fascinated with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for some time. However, the notion that I could actually build a model airplane capable of autonomous flight seemed like little more than a pipe dream. The idea of building such a model is not new, but it has never been within reach of most hobbyists until relatively recently. My first realization that the technology was possible came after reading about Maynard Hill's flight of "The Spirit of Butts' Farm" in 2003. Also known as "TAM-5," this was a gas-powered model airplane that flew under its own guidance across the Atlantic Ocean. "TAM" stands for "Trans-Atlantic Model" and "5" means this flight was the 5th attempt. For all intents and purposes, this was a UAV with an onboard navigation system guided by GPS satellites.

Now, fast forward to 2008. I was thinking about the flight of TAM-5 and decided to do an internet search to see if anyone else was working on autopilots for model airplanes. Wow, where had I been? Not only were there a number of open-source projects going on, but the progress was remarkable. It's too much to write about here, but this is the bottom line--you can now get an autopilot for a model airplane capable of fully autonomous flight with waypoint navigation via GPS guidance for about $350. For another $300 you can have on-board telemetry, and another $300 for live video feed. I don't often talk about the cost of things in my hobby pages because it's a relative thing--what's expensive to me could be a drop in the bucket to someone else. In this case, though, this cost has to be put into perspective. The Desert Hawk, a small foam UAV that the military uses, costs $300,000 for a complete system. Now, this does include six aircraft (the size of a small radio controlled model airplane), a ground station and spare parts. Still, a hobbyist UAV (with very much the same capabilities as the Desert Hawk) at $1,000 is far cry from $300,000. Pretty remarkable.

I decided to turn my UAV project into something more than just buying electronics and sticking them in an ARF. Although I have built model airplanes from plans, I never designed and built one from scratch. So, this time I will. I'm cheating a little in that I am going to make a scale model of an existing design, the RQ-2A Pioneer. This makes life so much easier as the overall shape and many of the details have been decided for me. Maybe I'll come up with my own design some time in the future for another project. In any case, I chose the Pioneer because it has a relatively straight forward airframe that should be easy to design as a model. Also, I just happen to like the utilitarian looks of the Pioneer. After some legwork, I was able to get enough design information on the Pioneer to start my project.

The photo above shows a full-scale Pioneer hanging in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. That photo will have to do until my own Pioneer is finished!

Entry No. 1 - February 13, 2011

The first stage of this project is to design the plane. For now, the build log will be of a virtual plane. The design will be done at 42% (5/12) scale. I am using Google Sketchup for the design work. Sketchup is proving to be very easy to use. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery to see more of the design work.

Entry No. 2 - September 11, 2011

Progress continues on the design side. The main gear strut has been designed to scale and I got a quote to have it made. I also got a quote to have the ribs and formers laser cut. All of that is within reason, so I'll go forward with it.

Entry No. 3 - October 29, 2011

Before starting the actual build, I wanted to test my approach to making the boom-holding ribs of layering ¼" balsa together. This series of photos shows the result.

Entry No. 4 - May 3, 2012

With the design phase almost over, my project is officially underway. I received the laser cut parts based on my design. Also, all of the electronics are now on order including the autopilot, telemetry radio and on-board video with downlink transmitter. However, I am still doing some finishing touches on the design. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 5 - May 11, 2012

Parts and systems continue to arrive. I received the on-board video system, aluminum tubing for the tail booms and the custom main landing gear. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 6 - June 15, 2012

While the Pioneer is under construction, the ArduPilot Mega 2.0 (APM2) autopilot, telemetry radio and air speed sensor will be tested and flown on the SkyFly Max. So far, the installation is going very well.

Entry No. 7 - September 14, 2012

The SkyFly Max has close to a dozen successful autonomous flights in its log book. I put together a small video with some flight footage along with an overview of what the amateur UAV activity is all about. Also, there are now links in the gallery to a few reviews I have written on books about UAVs (real, not amateur).

Entry No. 8 - November 18, 2012

Construction of the Pioneer is truly underway now. The vertical and horizontal stabilizers, with rudders and elevator, all nearly complete. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 9 - December 2, 2012

The flying surfaces are nearly completed. As soon as the sheeting is done, I'll move on to the fuselage. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 10 - December 16, 2012

Work on the fuselage is coming along nicely. The base and sides are ready to be joined. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 11 - January 1, 2013

The fuselage has gone as far as I can take it without having the engine and nose gear. I have started mounting servos. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 12 - February 9, 2013

Work progressing on landing gear installation. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 13 - March 10, 2013

The DC Area Drone User Group, of which I am a member, was invited to participate in a recent STEM event. Click on the thumbnail image for more information on the DCA DUG, about STEM and for some photos from this event.

Entry No. 14 - July 4, 2013

Beautiful illustration of an RQ-2 Pioneer by military and aviation artist Jim Caiella. I am proud to say that my model design contributed to his final illustration. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 15 - July 5, 2013

The tail cone that covers the engine is just about finished. Engine cooling inlets need to be added to the sides and bottom.

Entry No. 16 - July 6, 2013

As progress continues on the Pioneer, I decided to move all of the autopilot equipment from the SkyFly Max to a Bixler and use this platform to test the on-board video system.

Entry No. 17 - September 19, 2013

Working on the remaining details, such as cutting slots in the tail booms and making the wing hold-down blocks. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 18 - February 28, 2014

Moving into the finishing stages now. I have started to apply Ultracote to all of the surfaces. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 19 - May 24, 2014

Making and attaching engine cooling air scoops. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 20 - May 26, 2014

The irresistable mockup. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 21 - August 31, 2014

Painting has begun. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 22 - May 9, 2015

The Pioneer is finished! All that remains is to do the maiden flight. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.

Entry No. 23 - May 16, 2015

Successful maiden flight (Sunday, 5/10/15)! One minor glitch on landing. Click on the thumbnail image to go to the Pioneer gallery for more photos and details.


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