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Victor launches robotics class with drone demonstration
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Victor launches robotics class with drone demonstration

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Five state-certified professional and hobbyist pilots sped, flipped and swooped their drones on Tuesday as a preview to a new robotics class where Victor Middle School students will build, program and fly them.

Victor Superintendent Diane Woodard said each class in the middle school would have one quarter, about eight weeks, of robotics class.

“This is the launch and in the robotics class they will be building drone kits,” Woodard said. “They will be doing cross-curricular activities with math, science and technology. I’m super excited about it. We’ve been wanting a robotics class and plan to have a robotics club where we compete with other schools.”

Educator Nathan Beckwith said this year the middle school students rotate through word processing, art, FFA and robotics classes. He is currently teaching sixth-grade students, then will have seventh and two versions of eighth grade.

Beckwith started his class on programming and coding basics through the online Kahn Academy.

“They are writing code and programming to make drawings,” he said. “But the gist of the class is to build, program and flying drones. Welding is our only concern because the drones are so delicate.”

Beckwith will teach drone technology with certified drone pilot Charlie Baker.

Baker owns Big Bear Aerial Production, a video and photo production company, in Missoula. For the demonstration, he had several drones that sent signals to monitors and goggles for students to watch.

He met with four other drone pilots on the football field of the Victor Pirates to demonstrate drone flight capabilities. Each pilot brought their drones and goggles.

“We’re the FPV Community, the First Person View drones,” Baker said. “We have all sorts of technology to show the kids. Cameras on the drones transmit to the goggles, and you can see what the drone sees — live — that’s why we call it first person view. The Go-Pros are for recording when you’re flying.”

Baker and pilots Devan Fuhlendorf, Seth Shults, Zane Siple and Hazer (one name only) brought custom-built and programmed drones in all shapes, sizes and endurance and speed abilities. The owners have production companies and YouTube channels.

“We all like the hobby of FPV and met through Instagram and Read It and it has been fun. We’re here to get the kids excited about drones,” Baker said. “Students will do programming, learning about batteries and frequencies and hopefully someone crashes one so we can teach them how to fix it, as that is half the battle because we’re always crashing.”

Baker has been flying drones for five years but said that when COVID hit and everyone was looking for a new hobby, his business really took off.

“I put about 300 hours into these drones and ran a computer simulation on them before putting them in the air,” he said. “It was quite a learning curve.”

Flying a hobby drone does not require a license, but a full pilot’s license is required for flying a commercial drone.

“Those commercial drones are usually quite a bit bigger,” Baker said. “If you’re in media production these days you’re going to have a drone but the FPV stuff is very specific to a specific niche of people who understand programming and repairing.”

Adrenaline is the main quest for FPV pilots who fly cliffs, waterfalls and mountains at 100 mph.

“It’s like being a fighter pilot but without the risk,” Baker said. “A lot of ours are set up with GPS units so if they do go down out in the woods we can find them. We use our goggles like an avalanche transceiver, just walking towards the signal. Our goggles show altitude, speed and the distance away from where the drone took off.”

The goal is to get kids excited to fly drones as a hobby and have the option of income while learning math, science and technology along the way.

“It gives kids the idea of starting small and working your way up,” Baker said. “There is a lot of calibration and tons of programming. All the kids have Chromebooks and you can customize the settings on how you’d like the drone to fly. It should be fun.”

Baker said he has not heard of any other class across the nation offering drone flying.

“I think it is one-of-a-kind,” he said. “It’s a fun and safe hobby.”

For the demonstration, drones zipped, buzzed and did amazing stunts around the Victor Pirate football field. Students got to wear goggles tuned to the right frequency to see what the pilots and drones were seeing. Some of the students admitted that the view made them feel a bit queasy but all oohed and aahed, excited to start the robotics class.

Student questions were about flying, racing, losing and crashing the drones.

Beckwith said student construction and programming of drones begins immediately.

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