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By Faran Fagen

Capture the Flag, a drone competition that pushes student pilots to score points by transforming flag stations to their team colors, took to the air at Florida Atlantic University’s A.D. Henderson school this past winter.

In the inaugural drone showcase in the school’s new gymnasium, the two-pilot teams steered and veered their unmanned aircraft in two ways.

Flying line-of-sight (without goggles) to turn sensor beacons to their teams’ colors over a one-minute period, approximately 100 students from various South Florida schools landed their drones on a colored pad for extra points.

Students also wore goggles to compete in first-person view races. FPV means you can see what the drone sees in real time, thanks to an integrated video camera.

“This is such a great connection for the students to combine the fun of racing and the engineering challenges of a traditional STEM challenge,” instructor James Nance said, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

Nance is the middle school STEM instructor and club sponsor for middle school and high school STEM clubs at FAU. Henderson boasts two sections of “Middle School Intro to Aerospace and Careers” as well as an aerospace club after school open to middle and high school students.

Nance also partners with the Drones in School after-school program (www.dronesinschool.com).

“This has been one of the most engaging programs I have seen for students,” said Nance, a Stiles-Nicholson STEM Teacher Academy fellow at FAU who conducts professional development for STEM teachers in the state.

Students in Nance’s drone program have become involved far beyond just flying in school. They have become experts in computer-aided design, experimenting with printing attachments to carry the foam chips and building complete custom frames for their drones.

Students have taken a dive into software, modifying the programming in their flight controllers to customize the performance of their drones to fit their flying style and modified airframes.

“Although we have drones and 3D printers at school for students to use, I am seeing many students use their holiday and birthday gift requests as well as their hard-earned savings to purchase drones, 3D printers, filament and other drone equipment,” Nance said. “As the word spreads about our program, I have new students stopping by my classroom windows to watch students work and fly.

“I receive emails weekly from upperclassmen in our high school program, who are normally fully immersed in the FAU University campus activities, also looking to form new teams and join the program as well.”

March was the last month of the virtual race, where students race physically on a universal time track, recording and submitting their flight times. Students also submit their marketing videos, marketing presentation boards and team portfolios to national judges.

Several Henderson teams plan to do a physical race in Miami at Coral Park High School to collect head-to-head racing points in a bid to qualify for the national race April 24-25 in San Diego. Henderson already has three teams that have qualified for the national race and hopes to add one or two more. 

Nance also will take some of his teams to show off the Drones in School program at the Marlins stadium in Miami, an event sponsored by FPL, which hopes to inspire more schools to get involved with drone racing. FPL and Drones in School also sponsored the event at the Henderson gymnasium.

“Although the Drones in School program is growing like wildfire nationwide, I would like to see more local middle and high schools adopt the program so we can grow the in-person student racing community and provide more students a pathway to the many exciting career opportunities in the drone and aerospace industries,” Nance said.

 “Although it might seem daunting for a school to jump into drones, I would like to assure them that the Drones in School organization, FPL and local team mentors like me are here to support them in getting started.” 

In addition to Capture the Flag, the winter FAU gymnasium tournament included a first for Drones in School, with a simulator race. Working with a drone-racing professional pilot, “Hyper FPV” from the DRL (the league you see on television), FAU created a track on the VelociDrone simulator program and gave teams 10 minutes each to score their fastest set of three laps.

As part of their portfolio submissions judged by three drone professionals, students were challenged to design and 3D-print an apparatus to carry a 2-inch foam chip on their drones, which could be delivered to the judges immediately after the races.

“This simulates the engineering challenge companies are facing now in the marketplace that are seeking to deliver goods and lifesaving medicines utilizing drones,” Nance said.

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