Project presentation & demo

On Monday Rob & I presented our final year project to the staff and fellow students. We spent half of Sunday – when not crashing the plane – reviewing & rehearsing the presentation. I wasn’t very confident; it would have been nicer to have the presentation ready a week ago, so we could let it ferment a little, and rehearse it a little more. But, I think we made the right choice in prioritising getting the actual project working; as engineers we don’t have high standards set for public speaking, and we know our content inside & out, so we could have pulled it off in any case.

Nonetheless, I think we could have done better. The presentation went well enough, overall… Rob & I both made only a few mistakes, missed out on mentioning a few things, all the usual stuff. But I think overall it was reasonably well received. The questions were primarily technical, however, which while entirely relevant was completely unexpected – at the half year presentation we were pestered heavily by Michael Feramez asking bizarre and abstract questions about basic business stuff.

The other presentations were quite good for the most part. Most humorous were the presentations by two separate people on the same topic, aeroponics systems. One was by some random guy, who seemed to have a reasonable grasp of the technical aspects, but little understanding of the actual details of aeroponics. The other was a southern African guy, who seems to have a very big life focus on dealing with famine and other problems in 3rd world countries (particularly southern Africa, of course). He knew heaps about the details of aeroponics, but spent a bit too much time on the history – which while interesting, isn’t all that relevant to the project – and had to skim over the actual technical details.

The thought that I came away with after the presentations was the interesting juxtaposition – two people both working on the same system, but while one is doing it in the hopes of curing famine in Africa, the other looked more like he wanted to grow better dope. :)

After the presentation we headed down to the project lab to setup for the demonstrations. We had my computer playing the footage from our recent flights, and playing a photo slideshow on a second monitor (I thought it was pretty cool that I could do both on my wee little Powerbook :D ), with Rob’s computer handling the Bluetooth connection to the plane. The plane itself was setup in the midst of this, with power and board plugged in so that Rob could demonstrate both basic manual control and autopilot. The autopilot demo actually went really well, given the plane was stationary on the desk – once switched on it smoothly angled the rudder to full-left. We were using GPS bearing at this point, since the magnetometre doesn’t work when the engine’s on, so we didn’t have a bearing… apparently the default in that case is 0, and the plane’s first waypoint was figured as something else, so it [luckily] worked out conveniently for us. It wasn’t as good as if we’d used the magnetometre, and thus been able to yaw the plane around to demonstrate the rudder adjustment under autopilot, but it seemed enough for most people.

I had kind of expected a bit more, though… I think our project’s pretty cool, and it’s been quite hyped within the department (and even outside). Certainly, when we did demo it in the lab we had nearly eveyone’s attention. Nonetheless, after Rob’s quick demo of the autopilot and logging on the MMC card, everyone dispersed and went on to review other projects. Few people watched the video – I think I watched it more than everyone else combined – and there were surprisingly few technical questions.

I must say, it particularly irked me that no one seemed to realise how hard some parts of the project were. We only had a single slide in the presentation (of some 36 or something) on the entire logging system, which represents something like 70% of the AVRs code, and probably half it’s [software] development time. I’m sure Rob’ll argue, but I felt it was greatly under-appreciated. Not that it wasn’t the only thing – the PID algorithms used to control the craft are quite tricky little devils, as I’m sure Rob will attest, and while Rob had a few slides for them, there were few questions on them, and it didn’t seem to impress anyone that we’d actually managed to implement all this in a semi-working fashion.

There was also the Flight Planning software… it’s been very frustrating developing it, and quite tedious and long, but overall I’m pretty happy with it. I’ve learnt a fair bit about OpenGL (on top of my existing basic knowledge) and my WebKit hackery was both interesting and practical, as I now finally have a reasonable grasp on CSS and JavaScript.

Of course, in the engineering department such knowledge is virtually worthless, in terms of peer respect. Being able to hook up a stepper motor to a CPLD, or make electronic dice using a Z8 and two 7-segment display, those get kudos. (for the none engineering crowds, these are what’s known as completely bloody trivial tasks) On the other hand, reverse engineering Google Maps, hacking WebKit to fold them seamlessly into a GUI app, using OpenGL to render the Earth & our flight paths in 3D… heck, most of them would be snoring or pretending to take a vitally important call before I even got to “WebKit”. Well, apart from Peter Stewart, the resident Mac-head on staff. He’s cool, even if he can’t pronounce magnetometre properly. ;)

I’m a bit worried in that regard about the project. I think Rob & I had a pretty similar workload throughout, and I think we’ve both done more than we should be expected to, but I don’t think I did enough hardware stuff. Rob designed & assembled the board by himself. I wasn’t entirely detached from the process – I apparently had enough input to get blamed when pins ended up connected the wrong way :P – but in hindsight I should have done more, and would have liked to have done more.

Still, it’s easy to say that when you haven’t actually had to deal with Protel. Had I in fact been more involved in the board design, I’m sure I would have filled this journal with curses and threats of grievous bodily harm against Protel’s creators.

Anyway, it’s late, there’s work to be done yet, and I have to get up early in the morning for a haircut, so that I at least look like I tried to be presentable for this business we’ve got going on this afternoon… depending how it goes, I might provide details later. :)

Also, I finally bought a new shaver, and it’s awesome. :D It’s so refreshing to have a shaver which actually cuts the hair… while I fully respected the smooth results that come from just yanking it out by the roots, it’s not the most comfortable approach. (I can’t remember if I mentioned it, but my old shaver died a few weeks ago… I decided to tough it out, which resulted in all too much fuzz for my liking, although I think it’s something that could grow on me… pun most definitely intended, no apology proffered :P )

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