They hover in space, floating with effortless ease and draw the gaze of amazed onlookers. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, commonly known as Drones, are equal parts sleek in techno design and fascinating with the views they capture, and yet, they are sometimes maligned for the potential threats they pose.
You can include Steve Johnson, an educator at Walker (Louisiana) High School, among those who are mesmerized by the flying crafts, but he also believes Drones have gotten a bad rap since they became popular in 2006.
“When Drones were introduced, they were considered a nuisance because people were doing bad things with them,” Johnson said. “When taught properly, Drones are an incredible thing that contribute so many positive things to our society. I see it firsthand: Drones and students eager to learn are a great mix.”
Johnson is in his fifth year as director of the Walker High School Drone Academy. It is a part of a far-reaching curriculum at the school that provides educational opportunities for students that include experiential learning in environments ranging from an on-campus pizza restaurant and a paint and body shop, to a digital media studio and a bank.
“Our Drone program has re-invigorated this educator who is well beyond retirement,” Johnson said with a laugh. “We have a principal in Jason St. Pierre who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines. Every student who comes through our doors won’t go to college. They need to be prepared to have life skills to be successful in whatever endeavor they choose. I was sent to Alaska to take a twoweek certification course to teach the Drone curriculum, and let me tell you, I am not too old to be taught new tricks.”
“After seeing the potential of the Drone industry and believing it would benefit our students to have more than just the 107 Commercial Pilot Certificate, I sought a curriculum that prepared them in every facet,” said St. Pierre, principal of Walker High School. “After speaking with the Advanced Aerial Education crew and viewing the curriculum from AAE, I made the decision to pursue the class. Our CTE Director, Staci Polozola, as well as my board members were on board, so the journey began. Our curriculum has greatly enhanced the preparation of our students.”
High schools in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah and Washington are teaching a Drone curriculum that was created by Advanced Aerial Education, an Anchorage-based company that provides teaching programs for educational institutions, governmental agencies and private companies.
Johnson’s classes on Drones are one of the most popular on campus, serving up to 27 students in each of the sessions. Johnson said Walker High School supplies the use of Drones to the students enrolled in the academy.
“In 2017, I was introduced to the world of Drones as a junior at Walker High School,” said Beau Alford, a Drone Avionics Specialist with the U.S. Military. “This opened a world of opportunity I hadn’t even considered. At present, I’m working professionally on UA’s and look forward to what future this awesome field brings.”
The curriculum taught in the states utilizing the Advanced Aerial Education program, allows students to earn their Federal Aviation Administration Pilot’s 107 License, which permits them to fly Drones professionally and commercially. That, Johnson says, gives students “a leg up when they enter the work world.”
Through the program, students have opportunities to work with professional businesses and organizations by utilizing the use of Drones. Experiential learning has included assisting realtors to shoot video of a property, working with the Department of Transportation to inspect bridges and highways and working with utility companies to inspect pipelines. Johnson’s students also work with the school’s ROTC program as they prepare for drill programs.
In his curriculum, Johnson also includes a business model component where students are instructed to start their own company. They are given a finite budget and must make business decisions on how to begin the company and set it on a successful path.
“Drones allow us to engage students in solving complex multi-variable programs around business, technology and communications in an exciting and evolving industry,” said Lee Butterfield, education director at Advanced Aerial Education. “Maybe the biggest misconception in the industry is that these are not legitimate aircraft and people need to be trained as such. This is why our hands-on scenario-based approach is key to teacher and student success. Our instructor and student graduates set a standard for skill set, responsibility and stewardship of the unmanned flight community.”
The use of Drones, however, remains slow to being accepted in the world of high school sports and activity programs. Potential injuries and liabilities are the primary reasons cited by state high school associations for not permitting the use of Drones during live events.
The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits flight at and below 3,000 feet above ground level within a three-nautical mile radius of all sporting events having a seating capacity of greater than 30,000. Drones are commonly used in professional sports such as NASCAR events, golf and extreme events. Drones, which have also been known to be used in practice sessions for football programs across all levels, have a battery life of about 23 minutes, according to Johnson.
Johnson is hopeful that with continued education and safety standards enforced, that Drones can someday play a role in a high school athletic event. He envisions pregame aerial shots of a football game, a cross country race, a golf meet, baseball and softball games, snapshots that can enhance the coverage while stressing safety for all. He is currently in informational discussions with the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA).
“We are taking baby steps toward acceptance and education,” Johnson said. “I am excited for the opportunity to at least have (the LHSAA) think about it. It is a gradual thing. I think we have proven how responsible we can be by following rules and regulations. These students are really sharp and want to share their talents in a safe and healthy way.”
But regulating Drone users who are school-based and certified to those who are not, remains a challenge.
“We need to make sure everyone is educated and certified to ensure the safety of all,” Johnson said. “I believe that sometime in the future, you will be at an outdoor high school event, and someone that is certified, will have been given permission by the administration to be present with a Drone to enhance the high school experience in a safe, creative and fun way.”
In the meantime, Johnson will continue to embrace the eagerness and thirst for knowledge that his students have for his curriculum.
“The sky is the limit with these kids,” he said. “I am blessed beyond belief to work with them. I ask them during our classes to list all of the positive things about Drones, and boy, it is fun to see that creative intensity begin to flow.”
Tim Leighton is the communications coordinator of the Minnesota State High School League and a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.