Drones course takes flight at South River High School

  • South River High School junior Chris Mylod, 16, of Riva and senior Zachary Chester look over a drone model they are assembling.
South River High School junior Chris Mylod, 16, of Riva and senior… (Photo by Joe Burris )
December 12, 2013|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Their real-life drones are still under assembly and likely won't be up and flying until March.

Until then, students at South River High School are taking flight with a toy model, a diminutive contraption that a visiting instructor says he flies around his house — or at least uses to inspect gutters.

"I mostly knew about the military application [of drones], but we've been focusing on the civilian application," said South River senior Zachary Brew, one of about two dozen students taking a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet class on drones — or as they're officially called, unmanned aerial systems.

ARINC Inc., an Annapolis-based communications and engineering firm, has partnered with Anne Arundel County Public Schools to develop the class. Officials say it builds on aerodynamics and aerospace courses students have previously taken, and extends that knowledge into an emerging and rapidly growing field.

It comes as unmanned devices have made increasing headlines, from reports of their use in United States missions in the Middle East to news that Amazon.com might one day deliver its goods via drones.

The Anne Arundel class is co-developed and taught by South River High School technical education teacher Rob Tompkins and visiting teacher Rolf Stefani.

Stefani, senior director of ARINC's Technology Innovation Center, exudes a passion for drones that dwarfs the 400-foot height limit at which the devices fly. Drones, he says, are this year's hot holiday gift. Or they should be.

"I'm happy about the Amazon thing, because it showed people a good use for drones, not the notion of Big Brother spying on me," Stefani said.

"I put a visual camera under [the toy drone] and looked in my gutter to make sure they were all cleared of leaves," he said. "I can get in a boat with my drone and go under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and fly it underneath and I could look at every girder and tell you if there are cracks. I could do the whole bridge in a matter of an hour or two, as opposed to three weeks that they do now.

"France is using drones for power line inspection," he added. "Germany is using them for monitoring because there's a lot of copper theft over there.

"If you have a huge farm, instead of getting a crop duster and dusting the whole 400 acres, you send up a small done every day and, with an infrared camera, determine if there's blight or moisture or too much heat in one area of the farm," he said. "And you can go out do a local treatment of insecticide.

"Japan is doing that now, for rice patties," he said. "They've been doing for years. Other countries are so far advanced with this stuff."

South River students are learning about the devices at the same time Maryland is vying to be one of six sites for Federal Aviation Administration tests to integrate remotely piloted aircraft into U.S. airspace. The FAA is slated to integrate drones into the National Airspace System in 2015, a move that will likely put the United States on par with other nations.

At South River, students are designing drones on which they will they will later attach cameras and batteries that will enable them to fly for up to six minutes.

ARINC officials paid for the devices, which cost about $400 each. Until they're assembled, students have been flying the smaller models while learning about flight theory and the physics and mathematics behind the drones.

"The main reason I took this class is because it lets me practice all the stuff in high school," said South River senior Zachary Chester of Mayo. "You learn about soldering circuit boards, but you never get to practice it in real-world application."

"I basically knew that drones were unmanned, and I knew how they were being used in Afghanistan," said South River junior Chris Mylod of Riva. "I saw that drones were the future, and I wanted to get involved with them."

Stefani said most times the students fly the drones outdoors, but at a session this week, students took turns attempting to fly the model drone and land it on a table in a classroom — some were more successful than others.

Tompkins said he and Stefani spend a good bit of time talking with students about the perceptions about drones, which have come under derision from the public amid their use in conflicts overseas.

"Everyone knows drones, and the first thing that comes to mind is the military or the government," Tompkins said. "They're watching us or they're keeping us, hopefully, safe.

"What we don't think about initially is, 'how do we use these in a civilian manner, how can we as the average person use these to our advantage?'

"We really don't know what it's capable of and where it's going to take us in the future," Tompkins said. "So it's perfect with students, because who knows technology best? Kids. We take their interest and their knowledge and we're trying to push them to the next level. Not what are we doing with [drones] currently, but what can we do in the future?"


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