Paschal tech whiz builds a camera on a drone

03/12/2014 4:54 PM

03/12/2014 11:50 PM

An 18-year-old senior at Paschal High School with a flair for technology will allow researchers at the Fort Worth Zoo to watch animals in Puerto Rico without having to leave the zoo lab.

Tanner Silva of Fort Worth built a drone camera system that will snap shots of animals at field sites, including some evasive ducks who live on far-flung ponds in Puerto Rico. The camera will then zip the photos to the computer lab at the zoo for review.

“They will take my drone camera and fly it over the pond where the ducks live and take aerial pictures,’’ Silva said.

Without the camera system, zoologists wouldn’t be able to study or observe the ducks in their natural habitat. The animals scatter every time they hear humans approaching on kayaks.

Silva’s drone camera is about the size of a credit card and is mounted on a multi-blade drone. Michael Fouraker, executive director of the Fort Worth Zoo, described Silva’s product as a “conservation drone.”

The drone camera system isn’t Silva’s only creation. He’s also developed a handful of personal computer apps to make his own life easier, he said. He created a Mac news app called Podsnatcher, a podcasting client, that was a top seller when it was released in late 2012.

His interest in technology began when he wanted to learn a programming language and took a course in C++.

“I wanted to take the class and see what it was like,’’ he said. “I actually fell in love with the whole process.”

After he learned C++, he created some personal apps to complete tasks on his computer. For example, he created one that would tell him quickly if the machine had lost its connection to the Internet.

“The WiFi at the [Colorado] high school was notoriously known for dropping the connection at a moment’s notice,’’ he said. “So I thought it might be nice to know when I have an Internet connection and when I don’t.

“It was a little green or red dot that would just appear in the corner of my screen,’’ he said. “When the dot was green, I would have Internet connection and I could do whatever I wanted on the computer.”

His projects grew more ambitious over time.

In summer 2013, he saw a YouTube video of a quad-copter, a remote-controlled camera that hovered on blades for aerial photography. He was immediately hooked. Silva built his own model with circuit boards and radio equipment that he purchased from China.

He used his knowledge of programming with the circuit boards for communication and getting the aircraft in the air. For months, Silva’s camera has been roaming the North Texas area, snapping bird’s-eye views of AT&T Stadium, as well as TCU, Montgomery Plaza and other Fort Worth sites.

These days, Silva says he is most proud of what he built with the tiny camera, which weighs almost nothing.

“The whole drone project was to take the programming knowledge that I had learned and apply it to actually something I built myself,’’ Silva said.

“It allowed me to really apply all of my programming knowledge to something more tangible.”

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