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LeTourneau drone camp introduces junior high, high school students to unmanned aviation

By Meredith Shamburger
June 16, 2017 at 11:01 p.m.
Updated June 17, 2017 at 10:32 a.m.

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Kasey Shultz, a 15-year-old from Cuero, likes drones. He just doesn't like fixing them when they break, which was happening a lot this week, because he was flying a drone known as the "tiny whoop."

The micro-quadcopter with four propellers is prone to crashes because it's so light and unstable.

"That's annoying," he said. "I've been trying to glue this thing on for the past 20 minutes. But when they work, that's the most satisfying thing.

"When they haven't been working all day, and they've been doing that, then you get a successful flight, and you're able to get through a gate and do a successful bank."

Shultz and a handful of other junior high and high school boys spent their afternoons learning all about drones and how to fly them as part of LeTourneau University's summer camp program, which ended Friday. Drone Flight Camp brought together students and professional drone pilot/LeTourneau instructor Ruedi Schubarth, letting them experience first-person-video drone racing.

The students, in addition to gaining flight experience, got their own micro-quadcopter to take home and a working knowledge of its parts.

First, though, they had to deal with the drones breaking. A lot.

Schubarth spent most of the time Wednesday watching a few teens eagerly flying their quadcopters around a gymnasium while he glued parts back on the others' drones while they watched with dejected looks on their faces.

One student's drone wrecked mid-flight, spiraling down between a narrow gap in the gym's wall and a rock-climbing feature. Two of Schubarth's student assistants had to find a long pole to rescue it.

"Rule No. 1 of FPV racing: If you're not crashing, you're not racing," Schubarth said. "Crashing is actually very common. They're small, so they're light, and they're pretty safe, but they're also a little bit fragile."

The summer camp started with Schubarth giving students a basic lesson on drones, how they work and the parts needed to make one. Then he let them watch racing videos.

"They get an idea of what's possible," he said. "Then they start learning how to fly. They start with the basics, kind of hovering, turning, that sort of thing. Then they actually start going on the racecourse and learning how to race."

The tiny drones might be hard to fly, but they're still very capable, Schubarth said. Pilots can use a pair of FPV goggles to view their drone's camera and see what it sees.

This year's camp was a bit different than a year ago, when Schubarth offered the camp for the first time. This year, the drones came mostly assembled. Last year, they were put together by students.

"I 3-D printed the frames, and then the kids put the kits together, but I was 3-D printing for about two weeks straight, and we didn't fly until Wednesday, so they were getting pretty antsy," Schubarth said. "So I decided to try to fly earlier and use these ready-to-fly ones. We still have to fix them a lot. I do a lot of fixing earlier in the week. Later in the week, we'll get better."

Brandon Peterson, 13, of Avinger learned about the machines from his drone-obsessed uncle, who took Brandon out flying during a trip to California.

"He let me look through the goggles of a friend of his while he was flying his drone, and ever since then I've been interested," Brandon said.

He's already planning for life post-drone camp.

"These drones are a bit wobbly, but they're easy to take apart, so when I get to take it home, I'm going to be putting it into a different frame so it doesn't wobble as much," Brandon said. "But because the motors do move, there's always an instability thing."

Schubarth said the skills his students would learn at drone camp translate easily to the larger, more expensive drones.

"All the controls are the same and everything," he said. "So they still operate the same. The bigger drones have better electronics, bigger cameras, things like GPS. All of that makes it easier to fly, actually."

And for Schubarth, drone camp was something that was interesting and engaging for all the students who participated. He always does a survey of his students, and he said some this year didn't know if they were interested in drones. That's why they were there: to learn more about it.

"They're all pretty interested in it," he said. "Some are realizing it's harder, and they're more interested in it as a toy. Some of them are interested in it as a profession in the future, maybe, so they're more engaged and focused."

Kasey is one of the students thinking about a possible career in drones. He's already talked to one of his teachers about using a drone to shoot school football games, and he had experience with some of the larger drones before coming to camp.

"These are more challenging, definitely," he said of the tiny quadcopters. "They are not as stable, because the Phantom, for instance, has such a big motor in it, has such big propellers, that it stabilizes itself really well. It was designed to be stable. These, if your wires are at the wrong spot, it's going to throw your drone off."

That didn't mean he wasn't having a good time, though.

"The Phantoms are just a lot more stable, but these are fun because they're a lot faster," Kasey said.

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