Students and educators get hands-on experience with building, flying, and understanding what makes a drone tick.
by Thomas Biller
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2018 issue
Drones are everywhere now! No matter how many airshows we attend, information booths we set up at conferences, or school visits, we get the same responses to our exhibit table. It draws them in and many times people of all ages immediately tell us about their own personal drone and the experiences they’ve had with them. It’s always amazing to me to see how many (especially farmers) have had experiences flying drones, and some have spent considerable money on these products! It tells me that drones are here to stay and everyone in every walk of life or age group has some kind of interest.
Here at Northland Community & Technical College, we’ve been teaching large-scale Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for quite some time, but as recent as 2016, like many schools throughout the country, we have introduced a small UAS program geared toward the field technician – a person who can help a customer decide what type of drone is needed for an application, then use the drone to perform the specific task and make any repairs as neeeded along the way. This individual is a well-rounded operator/maintainer focused on industry-specific applications, whether they be in agriculture, forestry, utilities, or even law enforcement. As you can see, the opportunities in the drone industry are endless as the technology advances and gets less expensive.
Northland was awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2012 for a project called DRONE TECH. We were funded to promote drone education in K-12, primarily focusing on students in grades 9-12. To accomplish this, we have set up summer camps for the first week of August each year. The first camp is geared toward high school teachers, especially those from more rural or smaller districts. Many schools have cut technology departments over the years and are now starting to revive them to an extent. Our goal is to give these educators some hands-on experience with building, flying, and understanding what makes a drone tick. In many cases, we even give them a drone and some basic curriculum ideas on how to implement a program back in the classroom. This is geared toward any educator who can make the connection in the classroom (i.e. the history teacher can use it just like the math teacher could depending on the teaching angle they are looking for).
The second part of camp is for the kids…typically students going into 9th grade, all the way through the 12th grade. This is a fun, very interactive two-day experience highlighting the drone build and a good day of flying and learning about the uses and products they can produce with them.
During the build, our main focus is to introduce these kids and educators to what makes the drone tick. Much like the radio control (RC) airplane industry, drones fall into that category as far as building, finding the parts, and some of the basic rules. We teach them materials science and why we like carbon fiber and composite type materials versus traditional aluminum or plastics. We discuss the resources for 3D printing drone parts as more and more schools have access to this technology as prices continue to drop. We recently added a new printer for $300!
That’s just the frame…now we have to talk about the brushless DC motors that in effect serve as the powerplant and the flight controls at the same time! These motors must have a way to interface with the main flight controller board or central processing unit (CPU). We use Electronic Signal Controllers (ESC) to make the transition from digital to analog and back the other way. In other words, all four motors on a quadcopter must be digitally controlled through the flight computer.
We can vary spin on each motor individually to give us the normal flight controls we are used to: pitch, roll, yaw and throttle. The flight board or CPU is the brains of the outfit and can be a very basic microcontroller board with sensors that allow flight stabilization for the hands-on pilot, much like many of the RC airplanes are doing now. These boards help electronically stabilize the drone to make them easier to fly. That is a basic board all drones have, but the better, more capable drones, also add in the autopilot CPU in addition to allowing for autonomous flight via a laptop or even a cell phone. These are the drones you see like the phantom that are programmed to execute flights and land all by themselves!
Once you have the basic principle of drones and understand that they all have the same makeup, you can actually approach this as a great hobby! All the normal hobby stores are carrying drone parts now and a quick look on Amazon will find you any part you need! It can be surprisingly inexpensive to find ideas and order the parts for all different levels of drones and capability. A great resource for anyone looking at this hobby is http://ardupilot.org/ardupilot/index.html, which is a completely open source, meaning all content is free for anyone to use and/or contribute to.
Bottom line is drones have gone completely main stream and will be much more common as the prices continue to drop and they become easier and easier to use. Many incredibly capable drones are available for under $500.
The industry is wide open for commercial users and hobbyists alike! Drones are also a great educational tool for introducing different technologies like micro controllers, sensors, electricity, materials science – you name it! We are already gearing up for the upcoming year of DRONE TECH and look forward to seeing more educators, especially take advantage of this opportunity. The NSF project provides participant support funding offsetting associated travel costs. More information on registering for the camps can be found at: http://www.northlandcollege.edu/aerospace/dronetech/. If you have interest on a specific event or career fair where you would like a drone presence, we will do our best to make it happen.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Biller is an avionics instructor at Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minnesota.