A pro pilot called in the drones to participate in an education event, inspiring pupils to imagine the possibilities. Robin Evans explains how things went for all involved...
To offer up some background I’m a commercial pilot who’d previously got hold of my first minidrone after winning in a competition in this very magazine last year. Shortly afterwards I shared my challenges about learning to fly this smaller craft, whilst offering some basic pilot knowledge into a potential skills gap for other new fliers (you can find the article back in Issue 16). Even back then I thought a drone would make a great teaching aid but the idea remained dormant... until now.
I have since become a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) ambassador for Hybrid Air Vehicles, designer of the pioneering Airlander airship – the world’s largest aircraft. Here was a legitimate reason to connect with schools and other groups on aviation topics – and if that included drones, then even better!
I approached my daughter’s primary school with an idea of helium balloon workshops, and that then morphed into a ‘High Flying Day’ of activities. There was a buoyant atmosphere when 290 children led into the hall to discover drones, airship models and helium balloons. I began with a presentation on being a pilot and how my original inspiration, Concorde, led on to my current role, which was something greener, quieter but equally pioneering – and local to the school.
However, aware that I was perhaps lacking the experience and broader expertise to acknowledge drones properly, I decided to call in the professionals for some aerial support. What follows is a summary of the drone-based elements of the day from the four perspectives of those involved.
Based in Hertford, Jason Smith is the Director of CineCloud, a company that specialises in aerial cinematography. Jason had previously worked for another established drone operator before launching his own venture in 2016. He takes up the story.
“It was clear the initial assembly had sparked an interest. Whilst talking about drones and aspects of flight safety, I would often be interrupted by classes pointing to a recent departure from nearby Luton Airport, admiring the beauty of a 737 flying through the air. Having just seen the inside of a cockpit, interacted with a pilot and learnt a basic understanding of air traffic control, they suddenly realised the airspace above them was alive with activity.”
“I was taken aback by the welcoming nature of the school, as drones are frequently making appearances in the media for all the wrong reasons. I began my presentation by asking how many of the children had seen, own or owned a drone before. The raised hands increased as the children got older, with at least 75% of every class claiming to have seen a drone and around a third having own one themselves.
“I played a CineCloud showreel - and they were stunned, with some applause afterwards. Then came a flood of questions, usually beginning with something like: ‘Was that really filmed with your drones?’ They were intrigued by the creative and humanitarian applications and had great suggestions of things that they wanted to film, including cars, Disneyland and America.
“The children were fascinated by the complexity of the drone, aiming to feel the propellers, controllers and batteries, despite reminders not to. They instinctively sought a tactile way of understanding what they were seeing, which was fascinating to watch and be a part of.
“Most were taken aback by the size and weight of the batteries and that got them thinking about forces and power-to-weight ratio. The inevitable question of ‘can I fly it?’ was managed by showing them the controls and explaining that we wouldn’t have time for everyone to have a go. Most knew what gaming controls looked like and explaining that the controls for the drone were very similar helped massively. The idea that two analogue sticks could fly a big drone was fascinating to them.
“The day was a great success. The next generation of pilots and enthusiasts are fortunate to have this amazing technology. The need for aerial education across all ages is apparent, with increasing industry-damaging reports of UAV near-misses. Allowing children to get first-hand experience by talking to professional aviators is definitely a step in the right direction and one we all enjoyed.”
Given the age range involved (4-11 years) both Jason and I had to adapt our material so that all classes got something from it. I was also mindful to mention current industry reports to overcome gender stereotypes, showing a video of a female aerobatic pilot. Whilst ‘piloting’ is historically a male-dominated profession, the airline industry now has schemes to encourage females into both the flight deck and engineering hangar.
A new strand of aviation like drones perhaps offers a new way to tackle gender bias. As Jason said afterwards, “It was great to see the school reiterating the idea that aviation is equally for boys and girls. The youngest classes had the most mixed engagement; in the older years there were more boys driving the questioning.”
The DJI S1000 was a great tool for explaining drones; the bare mechanics were fascinating to the children. The exposed wiring, spindly arms and landing gear made it seem like a huge robotic insect. With the drone on a table, Jason handed over a monitor with the slaved camera feed for the children to pass around. As each looked at it, the camera would pan to look each one in the eye: they found this hilarious.
I had not imagined that the subject of gimbals would crop up for even the older pupils. “I like how the camera goes round and round!” said one to me during the lunch break, excitably illustrated by spinning around with his arms out.
On a career angle, Jason was frequently asked how he became a drone pilot. He explained: “I have always been into photography. One year for Christmas I got a tiny drone with a camera attached which I used to fly around the local park. The picture quality was dreadful but it got me thinking; what would happen if I could link it to my phone or lift a GoPro? After an excited week delving into this new industry I was hooked!”
The Head later told me that one of the pupils remarked: “Jason knew what he wanted to do at school and now he’s actually doing it.” I know many pilots, regardless of aircraft type (manned and unmanned) that have had a ‘light bulb’ moment from an early encounter; I know I did and between us all perhaps we created others? The ultimate verdict for me was the sentiment of one happy pupil: “It was great to do something completely different - I never thought we would be allowed to have drones in school!”
The teachers coordinated other activities during the day. For those not so inspired by science, we added art to turn STEM into STEAM. Particularly for the younger classes, this involved geography and art (drawing pictures of where in the world they would fly their Airlander); dance and music (Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines); and writing (a newspaper report on space tourism).
“There were so many questions from the children it was hard for the teachers to get any in,” said Jason. “Some teachers were straight to the point and asked how much all the gear cost; others were very interested in the legal side. All had a basic concept of what a drone does, but didn’t know that there were licenses or even any sort of paperwork that would go on behind the scenes. They took comfort in the idea that there were regulations.” Jason stressed to all that every flight involved a lot more preparation than flying time, explaining how he’d assessed their school before agreeing to the day.
A teacher at a previous STEM event commented to me: “I thought all pilots were against drones?” My response was that many like drones and photography and the skills of operating machines responsibly overlap – they just don’t mix together. The Head later commented how the various elements we had on show did mix together and everyone could take something from the day. This suggests to me that drones are welcome alongside other types of aircraft.
It’s not often you can say that drones managed to upstage the world’s largest aircraft. How so? They have the major advantage of being portable enough to get onto the premises and interact directly with, impossible given the size, access and security constraints of conventional aircraft. Another parent brought in a hang-glider, and we can confirm this is the largest aircraft you can fit inside a classroom.
The Pilot / STEM Ambassador
In arranging the day I had contacted other firms with STEM ambassadors. One suggested they were unprepared to speak at primary schools, feeling unequipped to deal with small children. Not only was this no such problem for Jason, but the children readily accepted him, highlighting a valuable PfCO (Permit for Commercial Operation) skill in audience management. Such was their acceptance that lunch-time became an extended question and answer session, too. Having seen the professionalism on display I was very impressed – as a pilot, it is operators like Jason I’d want to see in charge of drones.
Jason does have some previous experience in this area, having already worked with the Muscle Help Foundation. They deliver personalised, once-in-a-lifetime ‘Muscle Dream’ experiences for children with muscular dystrophy – such as meeting their favourite superhero, racing at Silverstone or riding in a helicopter.
Jason explained: “We were originally involved just to film these events, but it soon developed into something magical. Many children are fascinated by technology and the DJI is a huge spectacle, so we also put on a ‘drone reveal’ where the children have a go at camera operating and ask everything they and their parents want to know. You can see that the hands-on experience really excites and engages the mind. For a moment they can forget about anything else and just be in awe of the technology in their hands.”
As the event wound to a close, each class relocated in front of the newly finished school block for dronies with their teachers. Afterwards, there was also some aerial photography of the school: cue a breakaway of the Reception Class waving and cheering at the sky to get in on the shots. Some of these pictures have already been used in school publications.
By the end of the day I was a little overwhelmed; it felt like the sort of nostalgic, sunny day that childhood is made of. It was a privilege to be allowed to go responsibly wild with the curriculum for a day and I’m grateful to a school bold enough to do something different. It was also important that fun and learning were not just restricted to the main audience: we all learned something of each other’s professions during the course of a day.
The Future Starts Here
As much as the digital world opens new doors, it is often invisible or abstract. But a machine with legs, arms or cameras that you can touch and then see taking a picture of you is immediately understandable. It reinforces that we can overcome any stigma of science as a dry, tricky subject by injecting some fun and interactivity.
At STEM events I mention that we are slowly opening our minds to unusual forms of transport, be it delivery drones or automated cars. These devices might be just in time for the pupils of today to design, build, test, operate or maintain. The slogan of Hybrid Air Vehicles – appropriate given its pioneering and eye-catchingly large aircraft – is ‘Imagine the Possibilities’, which is exactly what the school seized upon as an educational message.
Feedback: The Teachers
“Primary schools are the start of a child’s journey through education; the drones showed the children that anything is possible: a lesson for life”
“The lesson with the drones was ‘3G’ – one that will be passed as a memory to their own children and grandchildren. It lasts for generations”
“I thought the drones could be used for a fantastic piece of creative writing. Having seen how the drones move and the view that they get from the sky, I thought the children could imagine that they were soaring eagles. They’d be able to use some fantastic descriptive language”
“There are so many ways in which drones could be used across the curriculum. Aerial photographs would be great for teaching map skills in geography or for looking at different perspectives in art”
“This technology is the future and is what we should be introducing children to as early as possible”
“The drones were a fantastic addition and I can’t wait to see all the photographs”
Feedback: The Pupils
“Seeing the drones was completely amazing, I loved the way they flew and took pictures from above”
“I liked how if the drones lost their signal they would come back home”
“After watching the drones I liked making our own flying things like aeroplanes and helicopters”
“It was utterly amazing and I loved watching the movie they took from the drones”
“I liked the way the big drone had four cameras, two at the front and two at the side”
“I liked the drone taking pictures of us up in the sky and hearing where they had own that exact drone”
“I take photographs so I liked hearing the information about the cameras on the drone”
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