Student Spotlight: Henry Spradlin ’22

Student Spotlight
This story appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Indian Springs Magazine.

Henry Spradlin ’22
recounts growing up in Montana, disappointed each time his soccer season was delayed due to wildfires and hazardous air quality. Those experiences motivated his senior independent study to design and build a fire detection aircraft.

It started with a spark. Henry was curious if a neural network could be trained to identify images of wildfires. Drawing on the artificial intelligence skills he learned in the advanced topics in computer science course taught by alum William Belser ’80, Henry spent the first half of the school year diving deep into machine learning. For hours he scoured databases, wrote code, and built algorithms. After some success, he began considering practical applications.

Henry had an idea to assign the neural network to a small, portable plane that could extend the coverage area of a single fire tower. A lookout would deploy the aircraft at the beginning of each day to complete a programmed flight path over the forest. It would have a downward-facing camera to capture and analyze images every 30 seconds. If it identified a potential fire, it would send the photo and GPS coordinates directly to the lookout. Based on Henry’s research, this technology would be substantially less expensive than thermal imaging and provide real-time results not possible with satellite imagery.

Construction began with research into airfoil design. Henry knew the plane needed to be efficient for long-range use, so he compared data for various profiles and selected a wing shape for low drag and relatively high life. He used an online template to 3D print the structural elements, affixed them to a balsa wood dowel, and wrapped them in foam. 

Now Henry is focused on the motor and flight loop, which he will program using a Raspberry Pi and GPS module. He also plans to add an LED light to indicate when the camera captures a photo and a first-person viewing system, allowing users to see where the plane is flying from miles away. Henry will use the knowledge he gained in his ninth-grade engineering solutions course for these electronic components. The capstone project was to build an autonomous robot to navigate the VEX Robotics Competition field.

“This is an ambitious project,” says Mr. Belser. “There are so many aspects that need to be mastered: aeronautics, systems engineering, programming, computer vision, deep learning. In a company trying to make this system, there would likely be many departments collaborating together. But Henry is taking the whole thing on mostly all on his own. What a great way to learn the individual parts of the project and be able to see how they all fit together.” 

Henry has been interested in aviation for as long as he can remember. He was eight years old when his father got him the highly accurate Microsoft Flight Simulator. Henry is logging hours to obtain his glider pilot license but has his sights set even higher. He plans to study aerospace engineering in college and dreams of joining Indian Springs alums David Oh ’87 and Vernon Chaplin ’03 at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Honestly, it just sounds cool,” says Henry. “I like aerodynamics, but rocket propulsion is really neat because of the super high pressures and heat you have to deal with for launching and reentry. Just building rocket engines would be awesome.”

Henry co-founded Indian Springs’ new Rocket Club and co-heads the Robotics Club and Outdoors Club. He is a member of Indian Springs’ national qualifying mock trial team and state championship-winning soccer team. He also contributes to the school’s age-old traditions as vice president of the choir and a commissioner of the student government.

“Indian Springs has given me opportunities that would not have happened in a public school,” says Henry. “It’s really allowed me to pursue my passions.”