What the…?

Greetings from planet Perkins! For those of you who may have concluded that I’ve abandoned writing, this is my reassurance that I have not. Decay is actually sneaking up on being published – all too slowly, I know, and I apologize for that. I just finished my entry for the Walk the Fire anthology, and following the inner voice in my head, I’m fully expecting the editor to laugh at my feeble efforts. I have several other things that are worming their way onto the page, and although I understand the logic of ignoring that stuff until the Renewal universe is handled, I don’t always control what wants out of my head at any time. “But, Jim,” you say, “There’s been, like, eleventeen million hours since Renewal. What the heck are you doing?”

So, here’s what I’ve been doing.

My good friend, Hans, (Actually, he’s better than good, but don’t tell him I said so) and I have been working to start a remote sensing business for research and land management efforts. We’re using remote controlled aircraft (Not drones!) to collect the kinds of data that he has always known would be very useful in his fields of field biology and environmental science. We are not interested in spying on anyone and would flatly say no to anyone who asked. We are working on very high quality mapping and vegetation analysis, particularly in roles that would normally take a lot of people and a lot of work to do in the traditional ways.

We’ve learned a great many things, and have spent a lot of money getting to this point, but here’s the number one lesson. Development is hard – 7-days a week hard- and fraught with blind alleys. The end result is that my guess on how long it would take to get here was off by about three months, and that’s just one of my many assumptions that have been proven sadly incorrect.

Here in Western Washington, there are two seasons. Summer, and rain. I had hoped to be at the data collection point when the great switch in the sky flipped over to summer, but I was still crashing prototype planes on a regular basis. We have another four or five weeks of good weather, if we’re lucky, before the switch flips back to rain mode, and we all go back to huddling in hastily built shelters and warming our hands by the light of a monitor.

The good news is that we now have a reliable flying platform (or 3) from which to collect data, and we are hard at work doing as much of that very thing as possible while the weather holds. When the rain descends again, my plan is to write all the stories I have dreamed up while burning my fingers with a hot glue gun, and I’m anxious to get going. In the meantime, I am working very hard to get Decay out the door and into your hands.

There are two basic approaches to solving scientific problems in a technical sense. One is to drive through the front door with a dump truck full of cash, and the other is to adapt a wide range of stuff to the task and get it all talking to each other. We have been working on the latter method because a) no dump truck full of cash, and b) we believe that this is a change the world problem that needs to be solved, and that it can be solved in lots of ways.

As a result, we are using equipment and materials from all over the map, leaning on the hobby end of it as hard as possible. What I’ve learned is that the RC (radio control) hobby is an amazing group of people. They innovate and solve problems on a daily basis and more importantly, they share that information freely. As a guy who thinks about everything that could go wrong on one hand, it’s nice to find such a fine example of a community mindset that thinks about how to make things that work right.

I want to acknowledge some great resources in the hobby, just in case you want to get involved.

This guy, known as Ed from Experimental Airlines, has created a very complete system of building great airplanes out of Dollar Tree foamboard and packing tape. He has almost single handedly recreated the low end of the hobby.

Many people have innovated off his methods to create fabulous designs. Probably the best example is FliteTest. They bring a great deal of video production skill into the mix to deliver a friendly pile of information to anyone who wants to fly more and spend less. It’s been fun watching them develop, and one of their designs serves as our first line of remote sensing. If we want to see what’s in the forest neighborhood, we toss a Versa Wing¬†with a camera into the air and check it out.

Rcgroups is a huge resource, perhaps the granddaddy of them all. You can find answers to all kinds of esoteric RC problems here. One of the interesting things about RC is all the subgroups of people who are way involved with very specific things. It’s all here.

We worked our way up the scale of RC planes until we found something that could definitely carry the whole sensor load and promptly discovered a dead end. We could do the job, but we couldn’t get replacements and we had a very elaborate and relatively delicate flying mousetrap. It’s nervous business flying expensive instruments on a plane you don’t entirely trust. Forced to change direction, we went here. The Crash Test Hobby folks are serious about rugged designs, and thanks to a loose connector I can honestly say that I have tested their claim of building the toughest planes on the planet. Their plane shrugged off an impact that would have reduced our previous design to splinters.

In the course of development, it’s hard to predict where the key piece of “Ah-ha” information will rise up and smack you in the head. That’s why I need to offer a shameless plug for Thom Martin at our local hobby shop. He’s chock full of 30 years of RC experience, and the president of one of the local flying clubs, both of which are also brimming with expertise. I knew I was making progress when I finally asked Thom a question he didn’t know.

And finally, there’s our local mad scientist, Ron Lampman. He can make almost anything fly with a sheet of foam and some bubblegum. He has come up with several designs that just have that magic sauce. They fly better than they really should. We are working with him to produce inexpensive kits of great flying aircraft with more in development.

Thanks for reading!



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