Getting a class project off the ground had its challenges, writes Fairlie Atkinson. But give students two quadcopters, add some perseverance and experimentation, and innovative ideas really can fly.
Last year, I asked my Level 3 students to create virtual school tours for our 50th reunion. I wanted them to make something that people could view if they couldn’t make the event in person. It was a fantastic experience knitting 100s of photos together and adding little pop-up labels for things on the walls around the school. This year, I wanted to do something similar but not as time consuming. And that’s when I decided to buy a couple of quadcopters.
I wanted something easy to fly, and affordable but with photo and video capability, so I settled on two F+ Series Harrier quadcopters from RCTech – each costing $179. When they arrived, I thought I would have no problems flying them as I’m pretty good with my son’s model helicopter. Boy, was I wrong! The quadcopters are dual control, which means you are using two joysticks to control height and direction. I also didn’t count on them being so light that the wind would pick them up very easily and toss them in a different direction that I had been aiming for. Very quickly the school caretaker became sick of plucking the copters out of trees and off rooves!
The students, on the other hand, managed to get to grips with the controls in a very short space of time. What did take them a bit to master was keeping the copter steady when taking still images, as well as filming during days when it was windy. In the end, they had an absolute blast and created aerial video footage using still images and video of the school. The recorded material was edited in iMovie and annotations added, such as building names and points of interest.
With younger students, many are not aware of the commercial uses for drones or quadcopters. This was a great opportunity to take them on a webquest of discovery from Amazon’s delivery drones to monitoring herds of endangered animals. Another really interesting topic we looked at was the use of drones and quadcopters for spying. Students felt very strongly about this and it led to some fantastic conversation and cross-curricular ties with English (debating) and Social Studies.
Student flyer: Ben McDonald
Student flyer: Harry Atkinson
Racing, filming and flipping
And then, of course, there is the flying! We raced them, we filmed with them, and we flipped them in mid-air. We also tried tying objects to them to see how much they could carry and how far they could carry it. Student engagement was not an issue when these machines came out.
Initially, I did this with Year 13 students, as part of an NCEA standard 91635. But then I wanted Year 9 and 10 students to have a go flying them, too, so I ended up just using them as part of my lessons. It didn’t involve a huge amount of teaching time. We spent more time editing footage in iMovie and looking at those processes than flying and filming.
Things to consider
From my experience, there are some considerations to be taken into account when doing anything with a quadcopter.
Battery life – Many of the smaller machines only have about 15 minutes’ flying time on their batteries. You can buy spare ones but it is perhaps better to look at battery life and buy a copter with a decent flying time.
Weight – Windy conditions will play havoc with a light copter and you will need a ladder and a patient caretaker on the payroll to retrieve your copters out of trees and off the top of rooves. Go for a bigger, heavier model that is harder for the wind to play with. But be warned that the heavier ones crash harder than the small, light ones, so make sure you have spare parts or you practise flying on a cheaper version before tackling the heavier copter.
Video/Camera – Look at the specs on the camera. How much post editing do you want to do? With the smaller basic copters, there is only one setting for photo and video and, of course, the pixel count isn’t going to be huge. However, even a copter with 720p gives off a great video and photo on a clear day. Some of the heavier, more expensive copters will give you the option of how many pixels you want to shoot your images and videos in, and this can mean less editing down the line for your students.
Privacy – As with any filming it is imperative that permission is obtained first. I was very careful to instruct my students that the copters were not to be flown outside of school grounds and that no footage was to be shot of neighbouring houses or land.
Have a project – Using these devices shouldn’t be about just flying them. Get students to look at the innovative use of them and to consider the dangers to society posed by the misuse of them. This aligns very nicely with the NZ Curriculum Achievement Outcomes for Technology.
Designing a quadcopter
Everyone’s been really excited to see what we were doing. We haven’t done a lot of promotion or sharing yet as we are still in the initial stages of the project. Once we have approval from the Board of Trustees, we will upload some footage to the school website.
Next year, I aim to do some experimenting, and would like to look at designing a quadcopter from scratch with my students and testing out the idea of transporting things from one part of the school to the next. I would also like to get out with my students into the Marlborough vineyards and farms, and watch some of the owners in action who use drones and quadcopters to scare birds and spray crops. We can look at adapting these ideas to a school use.
Fairlie Atkinson teaches at Queen Charlotte College in Picton.