Autokite flight along a portion of the San Andreas Fault outside of Coachella, California.

Project Lead – Patrick McGarey // Project Supervisor – Dr. Srikanth Saripalli


The development of an autonomous fixed-wing motorized kite plane, Autokite, offers a unique approach to aerial photography in the field.  The inexpensive and lightweight nature of the Autokite makes it ideal for deployment in environments that are remote and or extreme.  The lifting capacity of the kite makes it possible to affix most handheld cameras t the plane which can be oriented either in the line of flight or directly down.  The entire package can be purchased and built for under $1000, which makes it a viable option in comparison with more expensive fixed-wing, rotor-craft, or inflatable imaging platforms.

The kite plane can be purchased as a kit from Electric Flights and assembled in a matter of hours.  The kite, when packed away, occupies a small “briefcase-size” case, which makes it ideal for those in the field.  The lightweight nature of the kite yields a surprising lift to capacity ratio.  In order to operate the kite plane we are using the 2.4GHz Spektrum DX6i Transmitter and the Spektrum 6100e Park Receiver.  Any 2.4 GHz system would suffice.  Power is accomplished using a single 3000mAh 4 Cell 14.8V Lithium Polymer battery.  The ideal flight time with this battery is in the range of 20 minutes depending on power vs. glide time while flying.

The autopilot system used is a ArduPilot Mega 2.5 which is an inexpensive yet robust single board solution to operating UAVs of all types autonomously.  A 3-axis gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer, along with a high-performance barometer are all included in a small form factor (67x40x12mm).  The autopilot system allows the Autokite to fly a GPS accurate flight pattern by specifying ground points and or a preordained flight pattern (i.e. lawnmower, circular, or random), and can be used to create accurate Digital Elevation Models, DEMs, while in the field. (DEMs created with Autokite are shown below)


Field Testing

This video shows a precarious early hand-launch of the Autokite at a fault scarp site near Landers, CA.  The Autokite was used to image an eroded fault scarp caused by the 1992 7.3 Magnitude Landers Earthquake along the well known San Andreas transform fault.  We were fortunate not to crash in this instance, but learned that a greater amount of takeoff thrust is needed in the absence of surface wind.

Digital Elevation Models

The following Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) of the San Andreas Fault were created using Photosynth software in conjunction with digital imagery captured by the Autokite and an onboard Canon SX230 GPS enabled camera.

Landers, CA

Coming Soon…

Coachella, CA,

Coming Soon…

Little Rock, CA

Coming Soon…