Using “Drones” for Integrated STEM Lessons

Today at the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, the students had their first experience flying radio controlled quad-rotor model aircraft, popularly known as “drones.” See my post from last summer on what drones really are, but we will use the term here. We used them today as part of an integrated set of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) lessons. Our focus in science right now is on the Earth and its surface features, including plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, weathering, and erosion. The aerospace topic that I linked to this science topic is remote sensing, using aircraft and spacecraft to observe the surface of Earth. To prepare students to learn about remote sensing, we first studied wave motion and the electromagnetic spectrum. I explained this approach fully in my last post. We fit the model drone flying into this integrated learning in a few ways. First, the students learned the science of how a drone flies when we studied helicopters last fall, and we reviewed helicopter flying recently with flight simulator lessons and class discussions. They also have been studying remote sensing methods, and they understand how drones provide a remote sensing platform. The students followed standard steps that I require with every use of technology in the classroom: 1) study the operating procedures and the safety rules, 2) examine the technology up close and discuss the procedures, and 3) use the technology in a safe environment with everyone getting hands on experience. The specific steps we did were to read over the drone specifications and review model aircraft safety procedures last night and take a quiz today, then pick up the drone and look at all the parts in the classroom today while discussing safe flying operations, then go outside and fly while following Academy of Model Aeronautics safe flying procedures. For the engineering aspect of the lesson, we looked at the design of the drone in detail and discussed it. Next year these students will fly drones as their main focus for the aviation unit, and they will build an improved model of a drone. Finally, for math, we have been covering linear equations and algebraic problem solving, so I asked the students in the warmup to find the wavelength of the drone’s transmitter frequency, listed as 2.4 Gigahertz. The students had to think back to our study of the electromagnetic spectrum and remember to use the speed of light, approximately 300 million meters per second, and calculate the wavelength as we have practiced in class. They did this quickly and successfully. The following photos show the students flying the drones outside on our school playing field:

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The drones have a simple camera, so these photos were taken by the drones of the students flying them:

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Learning about Drones, RPAs, and R/C Aircraft

Over the past couple weeks, I have wanted to learn more about “drones,” a term that I found out is incorrect – the proper term is remotely piloted aircraft, or RPAs. Before these modern aircraft were in the news, they used to be just radio controlled aircraft, or R/C aircraft. What’s the difference? Drones are unmanned aircraft typically used for target practice. RPA’s are sophisticated aircraft used for many different missions and piloted by a crew on the ground using satellite signals. R/C aircraft are simply model aircraft flown using a remote control system that transmits the control signal from a handheld controller to the aircraft using a radio signal. For the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, flying small scale R/C aircraft will be part of the curriculum. Initially students will fly store bought models, then they will design and fly their own creations. To teach all this, I am getting proficient in R/C aircraft operations so we have a safe and instructive program.

Mr. Holmes in his backyard, taken with UDI R/C aircraft
Mr. Holmes in his backyard, taken with UDI R/C aircraft

The first thing I am doing is getting proficient with the R/C aircraft I got for the Academy: UDI R/C four-motor helicopters with cameras. These are sometimes called “quadcopters,” another incorrect term–quadrotor helicopter would be more correct. They have a simple onboard camera that takes photos and videos that can be downloaded after flight. They are simple to fly, and they give us a great way to learn about remote sensing, a major unit we will study in the spring. This photo of me in my backyard was taken using one of these aircraft.

The other thing I am doing to ensure we have a safe and effective R/C aircraft program is to join the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) and to partner with a local chapter, the Central Connecticut R/C Club. Today, I went to the club’s “Fun Fly Day” at their field at 100 Meadow Road, Farmington, Connecticut. I met the club president, Damon Rosenthal, and watched club members, including several youth members, fly their aircraft–everything from 1/4 scale replicas of old warbirds to small, simple airplanes made from foam board. The flying is done following AMA’s safety rules. Beginners take lessons and get checked out by an instructor before they can operate their aircraft on the field. For anyone who has always wanted to fly, this is an alternative way to do it. The following photos are from today’s event. The club is also hosting another big event on National Model Aviation Day on August 15, 2015–any one is welcome to stop in and observe the flying and learn more about this sport. I also invited Mr. Rosenthal to give a talk at the Academy this fall to help our students learn about R/C aircraft flying and the club.

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