Kids send their drones flying

When 13 sixth, seventh and eighth graders get in a room with their drones, it might be reasonable to assume that chaos would ensue.

But that was definitely not the case with the drone club that was offered this fall at Middlebrook School. Under the supervision of music teacher Michael Gordon, the students, who range in age from 12 to 14, participated in some orderly “flight paths” in the school’s music room, although there was some drama when the exercises moved outdoors.

Gordon himself has a 107 license, meaning he passed a test which ensures that people flying drones do so with a knowledgeable background of drone and airspace safety. He earned the license after taking a Wilton Continuing Education class on flying drones and decided it could be done with students.

The purpose of the students’ club, which is also offered through continuing ed, is to teach them how to fly drones safely according to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules. The students met for an hour a week, with Friday, Nov. 8, the last in an eight-week session. Another session will be held in the spring.

Helping out with the club was Ken Boehm, who ran a drone class at Wilton High School in 2015 and hopes to do so again in the spring.

Each student is required to bring their own small drone to club meetings, some of which can be purchased for $20 to $35. Some are more sophisticated, with high-quality cameras and GPS capability, that cost more. Thanks to an anonymous donor, the school received a DJ Phantom 3 Pro drone, worth about $1,400, which Gordon lets the students practice with outdoors. It has a 4K camera that can take video and still photos.

One of the students waiting to put his drone through its aeronautical paces was Lucas Fontana, who said he likes drones because they are “super-fun.” He got his for Christmas last year and now he “knows how to trim it and fly it higher.”

Andrew Mims also got a drone for Christmas but didn’t fly it much. “I feel a lot more confident with it now,” he said.

Patrick Dineen admitted he was “too lazy” to put the propellers on the drone he got for his birthday and so it broke. Now he has a “second chance” and said flying the school’s Phantom “is cool.”

Boehm sees this club as a possible career path for some of the students.

“By the time these kids get to high school, they will be approaching this from a more professional aspect,” he said.

When the students flew the Phantom drone outdoors, they worked in pairs, with one student as a spotter, keeping their eyes on the drone at all times, while the other controlled it. The control device used coordinated the drone with six satellites. That device had two joysticks and the operator could see video of what the drone was flying over via a smartphone.

Student Nick Eberhart enjoys flying drones with his friends in the club and by himself.

“There’s a program that lets you flip the drone,” he said, “and take pictures.” He’s had three drones and has been flying them for three years.

“I like the smaller ones because they are handy and easy to carry around,” he said.

Up, up and away

As can happen with middle school students, there was a bit of drama while they were flying outdoors. With the Phantom up in the air, the student piloting it had his eyes on the controller and his observer let his mind wander. In a moment, the drone was nowhere to be seen.

Gordon quickly took control, reminding the students that the pilot has to keep an eye on the drone in the sky as well as the battery life in the controller.

“Because when the battery is red, it’s about to die,” he said. The observer, he added, should have told the pilot his drone was too high up.

After several tense moments, Gordon was able to retrieve the drone. What followed was a huddle with the students over what should and should not have happened.

“Lesson learned — the hard way,” he said. “All right then, go home and eat some candy.”

Despite that unfortunate incident, Gordon said the club has worked out very well and said he wished the students had access to some drones with stable GPS systems, that help keep the drones steady in breezy conditions.