Holly Zachariah The Columbus Dispatch

Jan 11, 2019 at 6:11 AM Jan 11, 2019 at 6:11 AM

CIRCLEVILLE — Nick Rothe pushed back on the controller‘s joystick, and the palm-size drone buzzing just over his head zoomed toward the far classroom wall.

A couple more manipulations and the drone spun back toward him so that he could try to land it on a tiny cardboard box.

He missed, but that didn‘t matter. The 15-year-old sophomore is just starting to hone his drone work and develop the skills he hopes will be of value to him if he becomes a geologist, as he thinks he might.

“There‘s things you can‘t see except with a drone,” Nick said. “If I can learn how to fly a drone, in the geology field I can scout out areas like the side of mountains and rocky edges.”

That‘s exactly the kind of thing that Meghan Thoreau likes to hear from the 13 Circleville High School students who belong to the school‘s newly formed tech-sport club that will, in the spring, compete in the S3RA Drone Racing Scholastic League.

Thoreau is an Ohio State University Extension educator based in Pickaway County. She focuses on community development and STEM programming and was able to secure a $5,000 OSU Extension grant to get such clubs up and running in Pickaway County schools. Circleville is the first to participate, with others to follow.

Racing the tiny, toy-grade drones through indoor obstacle courses made up of flags, hoops, twists and turns can be a lot of fun, Thoreau said. They travel as fast as 20 mph and are not the professional kind that require licenses. But the fun is just a side benefit. 

Students who participate in the league must assemble the drones from kits, program them, modify and repair them (building their own parts with a 3-D printer), and work as a team during competitions. Those controlling the drone wear goggles that show them the view from the drone. A second team member provides directions, and others serve as spotters so that if the drone crashes upside down, it can be righted.

“They are learning skills that are transferable and valuable in any field, even if they never use a drone professionally,” said Thoreau, who helps to oversee the club along with librarian technologist Trent Roberts, robotics teacher Joshua Thomas and language-arts teacher Danielle Stultz. “I want kids to think about what skills they want to have — in life, in school, in college — not just what job they want.”

For scrimmages and practices, the Circleville club will compete this spring against teams from Canal Winchester, Gahanna Lincoln, Reynoldsburg and St. Francis DeSales high schools. Marysville also has a team, but it‘s in the northwest region.

Then, the Safety Third (S3) Racing Academy, a long-established competitive drone-racing organization based in New Jersey that branched out last year with its scholastic clubs and accompanying science, technology, engineering and math curriculum, runs statewide meets. About 250 students in Ohio are competing, said academy co-founder Frank Costello.

“These students modify these drones to win, and they are studying concepts like thrust-to-weight ratios, aerodynamics and problem-solving,” Costello said. “The idea was, how can we take something fun and create career and education pathways out of it?”

Roberts volunteered to help coach the new club, recognizing that his students probably know much more about drones than he does. But that‘s OK.

“I like to do things that are fun, and this is a blast,” Roberts said as he watched Nick Rothe and three other high schoolers — senior Brenden Dunn, freshman Noah Quincel (the club‘s recognized “expert” because he‘s been flying for years) and freshman Emily Cooper — take turns flying one of the club‘s four drones around the school‘s robotics makerspace lab. “This is a tech sport that the kids can put on their resume. I‘m sure these skills will help them get jobs.”

It takes lots of practice and patience, though. In their first flying session, the four club leaders spent more time troubleshooting than steering. As the drone whizzed around the classroom and the teens guided it under held-up broomsticks and around cardboard boxes, Noah complained it just wasn‘t flying right.

Brenden teased him, saying, “It‘s just like driving a car.”

Noah rolled his eyes. “Dude, driving a car is way easier,” he said. “If driving a car was like flying this drone, no one would drive.”

hzachariah