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MIT student blogger Mollie B. '06

Airplane boy strikes again by Mollie B. '06

Adam writes about his UROP.

A guest entry by Adam
The blogging machine that is Mollie is running low on material right now. [Editor’s note: Um, by which he means that I have a test tomorrow?] So I, the gallant boyfriend, am stepping in to write the much anticipated UROP explanation thing.

In my three years at MIT, I’ve worked as a UROP on two research projects. Freshman and sophomore year I worked in the Aerospace Controls Labratory (ACL) and currently I’m working at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory. As many of you might have supposed, based on my infatuation with remote controlled (r/c) airplanes, both of my UROPs center around the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s).

Some background
I’ve grown up around aviation. There’s a picture of me taken on the day my parents brought me home from the hospital, and in that picture right next to the bed is a model rocket. My first rattle was airplane-shaped, and for every birthday/Christmas/Groundhog Day that I can recall, I’ve received something that flies. I learned to fly r/c planes when I was 7, and I attended and competed in various r/c events through junior high and high school. By the time I got to MIT, it was pretty clear what course number was going to be on my registration forms.

That being said, while I didn’t lack passion when I arrived on campus freshman year, I did lack organization and planning skills. [Editor’s note: Past tense?] So while others were attending orientation programs on “how to find a UROP,” I was watching Cartoon Network and trying to score free food from various student groups. Luckily fate stepped in; during one of the first days of 18.01A I met Carl ’07, a fellow airplane lover from Wisconsin. When it comes to administrative stuff Carl’s pretty much the anti-me, so he already had like four potential course 16 UROPs lined up. Intrigued by the potential to get paid to play with airplanes, I asked Carl how he got set up, and he directed me to the department’s UROP office. A couple of emails later I had a UROP, working as a technician on a fleet of UAV’s.

The ACL project
The project that I was assigned to was working on cooperative control between multiple UAVs. Basically the idea was to have several small UAVs work together to perform a task rather than relying on one larger vehicle to do it on its own. The focus of the project was on the software required to get the aircraft working together, and so much of the testing was done in the lab using simulated aircraft. Once the software was working we would actually flight test it using several UAVs. The UAVs were comercially available r/c planes that had been modified to incorporate the autopilots that would run the cooperative control software. This is where I came in. It was my job to make the necessary airframe modifications to accept the autopilots and associated hardware. Also when we went out to flight test, I served as the test pilot and took over control of the UAVs whenever something went wrong with the software (whitch it often did). The project was a lot of fun, particularly the flight testing, and it introduced me to a lot of the software that I’m now using in my upper level aero/astro courses. I worked with this particular research group for two years, and while when I started I was pretty much just a mechanic, by the time I left I was making some real engineering descisions that affected the path of our research.

The Draper project
Note: I can’t tell you many specifics about my Draper job because most of the information is proprietary, but here’s an overview.

Last summer I got a highly desirable internship at Draper Labs, an MIT-affiliated research institute, mostly due to recommendations from my advisor at the ACL. This research group was developing an autonomous air drop vehicle to deliver precision surveillance equipment to high-risk areas. Basically they wanted to throw a small helicopter out of a cargo plane flying at 30,000 ft that would then fly itself down to a target on the ground and drop off a little camera to check up on the bad guys (this checking up on the bad guys thing is a big theme in UAV research these days). Unlike my UROP at the ACL, I was working in a much smaller group (me, my advisor, and a grad student) and I was expected to contribute more and work with a fair amount of autonomy. This was very cool because I basically got to design and fabricate the drop vehicle on my own, but it was not so cool because when things went wrong there was no one else around to blame. I spent the majority of the summer designing, building, testing, crashing and then redesigning. By the end of August I had created a working demonstration vehicle that met our sponsor’s specifications, and the coolest part was that I had designed every part of it myself. Based on my work from the summer, my advisor asked me to stay on the project through the school year. Currently we’re working on our second-generation vehicle and applying for more grant money, which I hope that we receive so I’ll have a job for the summer.

I wish I could show some of our flight test videos, but I’d rather not go to prison.

Questions by Mollie

1. I’m glad everybody was reassured by hearing about the sources of help that are available to MIT students. I remember exactly how it felt to be a prefrosh — I was all “oh god, everybody at MIT is going to be smarter than me and I’m going to fail and I AM SO SCARED.” Pretty much everybody feels that way. (And actually, the people who don’t feel that way are probably in for a somewhat rude awakening come next October… if you come in prepared to be the most amazing #1 person at MIT, it can be kind of a shock when you realize you’re not. So I think it’s better to be a little nervous, although I do promise you’ll all be fine!)

2. Kristin asked

Do MIT students take placement tests at the beginning of freshman year? And what was the biggest academic challenge you’ve encountered at MIT?

You will have to take a very short math diagnostic test over the summer, but it doesn’t impact much — if you do poorly, you’ll just be advised to take 8.01L, which is a more drawn-out version of physics. You finish the class over IAP rather than at finals time. You’re really pretty free to pick your own classes, although you’ll have quite a bit of help from formal events like the “core blitz” (where professors for each freshman class get up and give a short overview of the class and who ought to take it) and your freshman advisor, as well as informal sources like upperclassmen. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve explained every nuance of every freshman class to a bunch of puzzled freshmen… well, I think it would be enough for me and Adam to have a nice night out on the town.

I suppose my most significant academic challenge was just first term freshman year — I had never taken a physics class before, and I just didn’t understand how to do physics problems. Plus, I was still dating my high school sweetheart, and spent several hours each night on the phone (not good for the study habits, mmkay?). I didn’t know how to study, and I didn’t get enough sleep, and I hadn’t figured out yet that there’s a correlation between, um, going to class and getting good grades. And I ended up getting 3 C’s (thank you benevolent deity for pass-no record!). I guess I sort of tell that story in a very flip way now, but at the time it was incredibly frustrating for me not to understand, and to keep doing very poorly on tests when I thought I had done my best. I failed three physics tests, two chemistry tests, and a calculus test that term. That’s a lot of failure for someone who’s never failed before. But! I scraped together passing grades in all my classes (no thanks to my lack of studying for finals — I went into the calc final without having even cracked a book), and everything’s gotten easier since then. Strictly speaking, I don’t think anything’s gotten easier, I think I’ve just gotten a hell of a lot better at doing it.

3. Lizzy asked, “Have you ever used help in real life?”
Well, the time that Adam got sick during finals, I needed some help too. He had the flu, and I was trying to keep him hydrated and eating (“Honey, are you sure you don’t want another cracker? How about some applesauce?”) and study for my own finals. Plus, I was trying to make sure he wasn’t going to have to take his Unified finals, because he would have failed them. And when I get stressed out, I cry my eyes out, which is not really conducive to negotiating exam postponements. So I went to Bryan, our entry’s graduate resident tutor, and Bryan contacted Dan, our dorm’s Residential Life Associate. Dan talked to our housemaster, who’s a professor in Adam’s department, and he talked to Adam’s professor. To make things official, Adam had to go to the counseling deans and get an official excuse, but that was pretty much a formality by the time I finished bawling my eyes out to Dan. :) It was not a fun experience, but everyone involved was extraordinarily understanding and helpful.

4. Marta asked, “I read that “registration day” occurs the day before our first day of class. Does this mean that we don’t register for classes until that day? Or have I perhaps misread something? I’m somewhat confused…”
Upperclassmen at MIT do register on Registration Day, which is the day before the first day of classes. Freshmen actually register a few days before that when they meet with their freshman advisors. I know it sounds really crazy and hectic, but it’s not a huge deal — class schedules come out a long time before that (next fall’s schedule will be available April 19), so you usually know what you’re taking a long time before you officially turn in your registration sheet. MIT’s not a very big place, so there aren’t too many classes you have to worry about getting into — just lotteried classes. The general procedure for upperclassman registration is as follows: Student picks classes from the catalogue, student meets with advisor on Reg Day to get approval to take those classes (largely a formality), student attends the first week of class and decides whether to add or drop certain classes.

5. Anonymous asked, “Will graduate school or med school look at the gpa out of 5.0 or out of 4.0? I personally think it is fairer for the gpa to be looked at out of 5.0 since MIT is extremely tough.”
The system is out of 5.0. A=5, B=4, C=3, D=2, F=0. (I don’t know what happened to the 1.) I always translate when I’m talking to someone from another school — unfortunately, it’s not possible to say “I got a 4.5 at MIT” and pretend that it’s only out of 4, because it’s not. On graduate and professional school applications, they will always ask for the scale used at your school, and you will dutifully select the “Five-point scale” option. Or else they will ask you to convert your GPA, and being the intelligent person that you are, you will dutifully convert it to a four-point scale. MIT is tough, and graduate school admissions personnel are completely aware of that fact. We don’t need to artificially boost our GPAs to get into top graduate and professional schools.

6 responses to “Airplane boy strikes again”

  1. Laura says:

    Yeah so I did poorly on the math diagnostic and was “advised” to take 8.01L. But my AP scores from AP Physics C let me test out of 8.01 altogether. What?

    So like Mollie says, the test really doesn’t matter. Which is good, or else I’d be rather frustrated. =)

  2. Dan says:

    I saw your sleep statistics…that seems like something I’d do. That’s good that you’ve been getting a lot more sleep senior year than you have the other years! Sleep affects EVERYTHING!

  3. Sean says:

    Thanks Adam for the UROP info! I guess this question would be directed toward you. I would really like to get a UROP during my undergraduate studies (I’m class of 2010), and I think it is amazing that you can build airplanes right out of high school. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly that skilled. Pretty much the only thing I can do hardcore is web-design. I went on the UROP site and looked at the current opportunities, and everything is like: “Microprocessor Programming for wireless motor controls” or “Mechanical Properties of Sulfonated Triblock Polymers.” I can barely pronounce sulfonated, much less know what it means and how to build with it…

    If I wanted to apply for a UROP, how am I supposed to get the knowledge to actually know what I’m doing? I don’t think they’d give me a UROP if I didn’t know how to do the stuff, any yet I don’t think I’d be able to learn without actually doing it. Is there like an intern UROP? lol.

  4. Anonymous says:

    what is a postdoc?

  5. Dan says:

    In a previous entry, you said if you single major you need 180 units beyond GIRs, but for a double you don’t need the full 180 more – you ‘only’ need 270 total more than the GIRs. Does that mean you get 180 for 1 and 90 for the other, or approximately 135 for each major? On each department’s site, it gives the requirements for a degree in that major, as if you’re getting a degree in just that one. So if one wanted to figure out how much of say “physics” they would need with a double major in math and physics, how would they see how much of each they need to take?

  6. dj says:

    howdy, I’m a prefrosh who will enroll at MIT, and R/C is a big hobby of mine. I’m trying to do some aerial photography and stuff, and I’d like to keep R/C and AP as a hobby @ MIT. How big is the R/C fan-base @ MIT? DId you bring your R/C planes, etc to MIT?

    thanks!