Young Team’s Hydro Drone Project Promising for Future Unmanned Collection of Water, Waterways Data

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The Hydro Drone team includes, from left, Joe Betit, Lucas Antunes, Joslyn Herold, Dade Walker, and David Jesse “DJ” McCaleb.

Story and Photo by Bill Sterling
A team of three 19-year-old college students plus a Brazilian immigrant who recently became an American citizen are combining their talents to build a hydro drone that could have far-reaching impacts on the Eastern Shore and its environment.

The team is led by Joe Betit, who recently retired from a global construction company and is a professional land surveyor with a master’s degree in international finance. Betit has worked around the world but spent a large part of his career on the Monterey Peninsula in California before serving as the survey program coordinator for the Old Dominion University School of Engineering from 1996 to 2002.

His wife, Amy, ran the Bear and Cub Coffee Shop in Pungoteague for several years before its closing in 2012. The Betits chose to retire here, and it is the old coffee shop where Betit regularly meets with the team he has assembled to work on the GO VA Hydro Drone grant project. The team produced a YouTube video that describes the project and its mission; it can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2Mt7mAMoDM

Although the drone project could have an impact in many different areas, including the environment, economics, industry, and planning, Betit said, “The project is really about people and improving economics for the people on the Eastern Shore, especially the young people.”

Joslyn Herold, a 2020 graduate of Arcadia whose father moved from the Air Force Academy to NASA Wallops to design sounding rockets, has been surveying young people to determine what it would take to keep them on the Eastern Shore. Herold said the lack of opportunities for employment is among their chief concerns.

Herold has been taking courses online at George Mason University but is transferring this year to James Madison University, where she plans to study geology and wants to earn a doctorate and teach.

Another member of the team, David Jesse “DJ” McCaleb, was the Broadwater salutatorian last year and is working on a degree in mechanical engineering in the Virginia Tech/Tidewater Community College two-year transfer program.

McCaleb, who has a keen interest in engines, recently modified a derelict farm truck into a street-legal, all-purpose, off-road vehicle and has repaired three marine engines. The son of David McCaleb, whose action thriller books have made the bestseller lists for Amazon, DJ explained that the hydro drone being assembled by the team will operate on an autonomous system and contains commercial, off-the-shelf parts as a cost-effective means of collecting valuable data.

Lucas Antunes, 33, the oldest of the team, has studied architecture in Brazil and is now taking electronics courses at Eastern Shore Community College. He became a U.S. citizen March 30 and his wife, Ashleigh, is director of Eastern Shore’s Own Arts Center in Belle Haven.

Antunes said the team is focused on providing “rapid, cost-effective data solutions” and one of its visions is “to introduce advanced technology industry on the Eastern Shore.”
The students first worked with an ODU hydro drone that collects data by moving across the water’s surface and are now assembling their own hydro drone. In addition to more traditional aerial drones, potential drones include crawler drones that crawl across the bottom’s surface.

The students said their peers in their college classes, as well as their instructors, are impressed when hearing about the hydro drone project. “I feel like I have gained so much in the areas of teamwork, problem solving, discipline, and critical thinking and now really understand the importance of a deadline,” said McCaleb.

Herold, who finished fifth in her 2020 Arcadia class of 163, recently recruited valedictorian Dade Walker to the team. Walker, whose father is an IT manager at NASA Wallops, is taking online courses at the University of Virginia this year and plans to earn a math degree.

Betit’s team is international in scope as technology allows them to work with two team members in Perth, Australia.

Lucas explained that the drone will have the capability to measure flow, salinity, and temperatures of the waterways it covers and would be of use to environmental scientists, aqua farmers, and marine engineers.

Herold added that the project could progress to take core samples of six inches of a creek’s bottom, which could be valuable to aqua farmers.

Herold has collected maps of local waterways and researched corresponding data. She said some of the best data she found date back to 1832 when large steamboats plied the creeks of Virginia’s Eastern Shore and water transportation was important to the local economy. Herold added that for many creeks on the Shore, not all that much bathymetric data has been added since 1959.

Herold said she would not have had the opportunity to participate in this project had it not been for COVID-19 forcing her to take courses online and remain on the Eastern Shore. Walker agreed that working with the hydro drone team eased the disappointment of not being able to attend typical college classes because of COVID-19.

Acknowledging that his team is well-rounded, Betit said he met most of them through his wife, who teaches music lessons. Walker plays percussion and recently started piano and cello lessons with Amy Betit. McCaleb takes viola lessons, and Herold took voice lessons from Betit when she was younger and was very involved in drama in high school. Antunes learned to play guitar by ear and provides the background music on the video the team produced.

“I am taking viola lessons from my wife, and during the breaks we started talking about science and technology, and it led to us applying and receiving a grant for the hydro drone project,” said Betit. “There is a definite correlation between music and mathematics.”

Summer Hydro Drone Camps

Betit and his team will be holding a Hydro-Drone Camp at Eastern Shore Yacht & Country Club near Melfa this summer June 28 to July 2, July 12 to 16, and July 19 to 23, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The camps are targeted for students ages 13 to 17. The cost is $450 a session. Go to https://earthsystemsmanagement.regfox.com/esm-hydro-drone-summer-camp-2021 for registration.

Campers will assemble their own mini-hydro drones and a full hydro drone and gain an understanding of the parts needed to assemble a drone as well as 3D printing. They will also learn GIS and sonar applications in addition to understanding the process of collecting and processing bathymetric data.

“We want to promote STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs on the Eastern Shore. Eighty percent of the world’s people live in coastal areas, which are very vulnerable to change, and solutions need to be found to contribute a better life,” said Betit.

McCaleb said the team is currently developing manuals and procedures to train others in the operation of the drones, with Lucas adding that the team wants to establish a platform where students from local schools “can learn hands-on applications involving engineering, electronics, geology, biology, mathematics, and history.”

Betit said he allows the team members great freedom to discuss major decisions and form a consensus on how to move forward with the development of the drones. “The new hydro drone design construction is well on its way. Most of the parts have arrived and assembly of the electronics is coming along nicely. We also have received the above- and below-water 360-degree cameras and are testing them, using our kayak. This will allow people online to view the creeks as if they are floating down them,” said Betit.

“It’s been a privilege to work with such motivated and talented youth,” he added.