Minidrones, little pilots awhirl at Rome Catholic School

Students enthuse over the two-foot-wide quadcopter operated remotely by licensed drone pilot Larry Spadaro on Jan. 25 at Rome Catholic School. In his instructions to the students, Spadaro emphasized flying drones safely. Rome Catholic School Principal Patricia Bliss says, “Our schools are educating digital natives who not only use technology in a myriad of ways, but are so curious and creative in extending that part of their home life to their school life. Collaboration with their peers from St. Pat’s is one of the soft skills on which we need to focus. And it is fun! Who could ask for more.”

St. Patrick’s students join fun with takeoffs, flights, landings

By Tom Maguire | Associate editor

ROME — With accelerated learning — and a tolerance for trifling mishaps — piloting is doable.

First came the safety speech, then the simulator, and then, about 11 a.m. on Jan. 25, kids from two Catholic schools had their minidrones taking off and navigating obstacle courses. Sure, the whirring, buzzing quadcopters sometimes bounced off walls and clattered to the floor; it never bothered these resilient pilots or their aeronautical instructors/cheerleaders.

“Stay behind it,” licensed drone pilot Larry Spadaro advised one rookie. “Land it! Land it! Whoa! Bring it back! … (then, a slapping noise of plastic hitting floor) Oh, that was so close!”

Close almost counts when one is new at this. There were quite a few moments of triumph too: “Forward, forward, land it: Yeah!” Spadaro said, as if he had just minted a drone-squadron commander.

One student asked if the drone camp was a competition; it was. “Don’t kill the guy with the camera, but you will get points if you do,” Spadaro noted facetiously. Rome Catholic fifth-grader Dylan Coleman exulted when he landed the quadcopter on the 100-point circle on the floor. His mom, Shelley Coleman, was proud. She said with a laugh, “I’m going to tell his brother [Doug] now; his brother’s going to be a little jealous.” 

The question of the day was “Who’s flying?” as fifth- and sixth-graders from Rome Catholic School and St. Patrick’s School (Oneida) took turns with the toggle controls.

A goal was to boost students’ interest in math and science, because drones are going to be big in many ways. Already, they are used for building inspection, crop surveying, fire-retardant spreading, windmill inspection (in Canada), biomedical delivery (in the Swiss Alps), construction, terrain mapping, animal herding, disaster preparation, and communications.

Syracuse-to-Rome is one of seven test locations for drones in the United States, said Spadaro, a senior engineer for Peraton, an information technology and services company.

Retail companies are trying to come up with ways to deliver packages, and the Syracuse-Rome corridor will probably be a test area, he said. “And I personally feel that the economic impact will be as large as the Erie Canal was,” he said.

He added: “It’s going to be amazing in the next couple of years.”

At one drone camp, Spadaro said,    “we actually had the high school kids program a route to a certain destination and drop a package [a DVD], and then fly back.”

When kids go into high-tech, high-science careers, “it starts when they’re young,” said Maria Smith, Educational Programs Department adviser for the Project Fibonacci Foundation, Inc. Project Fibonacci, named after a Medieval mathematician, is part of a research and development campus in Rome. Its goal is to stimulate the economy with S.T.E.A.M.: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

“There are jobs right here, a mile from here, that can’t be filled because nobody’s majoring in those kinds of courses,” Smith said. Project Fibonacci, she said, is “nurturing the kids’ curiosity … and supporting their learning.”

The Rome Catholic and St. Patrick’s students learned on minidrones that are about six inches wide. Microdrones, only about two inches wide, sound like mosquitoes, Smith said.

Professional drone pilot Tom Harmon, of TomDrone in New Jersey, showed the students a small-drone video of majestic scenes in Oregon. Small drones are about two feet wide.       “Everything can look interesting from the air,” Harmon said. He added: “Even a graveyard can look cool.”

Ideally, he said, “I’ll fly the drone, and then my business partner will work the camera. So I can fly up and away; my business partner can do a nice pan.”

Such commercial operations require a UAV pilot’s license — unmanned aerial vehicle.

Asked to compare that kind of flying with a regular airplane, drone-camp instructor Eric C. Haines, a program manager and pilot with Nuair Alliance (Syracuse), said: “Totally different. There’s no pause button on a real plane.”

Still, the minidrone is tricky, requiring great dexterity with the toggle controls. “I’ve been skiing for about five years; this is harder,” said Jonathan Versace, a Rome Catholic fifth-grader. But he likes the challenge.

St. Patrick’s sixth-grader Mason Netzband had been training with a drone for a week. “I enjoy it because when I have nothing to do, I get the drone out and practice,” he said.

St. Patrick’s sixth-grader Rikson Stanton said, “I loved it. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done with drones. I love seeing all the big drones.”

“I’ve seen a lot of self-confidence and stepping out of their comfort zone,” said St. Patrick’s Principal Kristin Healt. The students “started out the day kind of quiet,” she said, “but that didn’t last long.”

Perhaps it was the invigorating competition. “You only have one minute, so get the most points you can,” Melissa Marris, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Patrick’s, advised her students.

At one station, instructor Spadaro had the students wear goggles so they could view exactly what the drone’s moving camera was seeing. “Anybody feeling a little sick?” he asked.

A step up from minidrones are small drones. If minis sound like a bee colony, small drones sound like an electric lawnmower. Spadaro mesmerized the students by flying the bigger drone with great precision in the gym. He flew it by the basketball hoop and brought it back to face the children. “Smile for the camera!” he yelled above the racket of the propellers.

The frantic whining of the drone is nice, Principal Healt said, because “then you know they’re around.”

Each school got to keep two minidrones. And the “bees” are rechargeable.