When Marty Wetherall, a founder of a free-to-play drone racing game called HydraFPV, ran into a local high school science teacher at the Hub Hobby Center just south of Minneapolis in January, he had an a-ha moment. Why not create Minnesota’s first ever drone racing tournament? he thought.
Physics teacher Christopher Lee, who runs the Apple Valley (Minn.) High School fabrication lab and STEM program, had his students building drones in class. Wetherall also knew of another Minneapolis-area school that was incorporating drones into its curriculum: St. Louis Park. The latter is within the same school district where Wetherall’s second- and sixth-grade daughters study.
Wetherall enlisted 2019 Swatch Drone Racing League Tryouts winner and Minnesota native Chris “Phluxy” Spangler to coach St. Louis Park, and local drone racing pilot and Apple Valley graduate Dalton Turner to coach his alma mater. On May 18, the schools faced off at Apple Valley.
Apple Valley’s Andrew “And E” Martin, 17, walked away with the first individual state drone racing title. St. Louis Park took the team relay title. Blake Gabriel, 16, won the elite race when pro racer Spangler’s drone crashed out of the lead.
Lee said he now plans to petition Apple Valley to create an official drone racing club that could eventually evolve into a competitive team. He believes he can get the school to sanction the idea if he proves both its educational value and sufficient student interest. He was also one of the faculty who pushed for the development of Apple Valley’s first girls ice hockey team in 1995, so the process is familiar to him.
Wetherall is looking to expand middle- and high school-level drone racing programs in general. He’s encouraging schools in any state to reach out if they have interest. HydraFPV is co-developing an educational Build-and-Race FPV drone kit that would offer schools hardware and curriculum assistance.
Those behind last month’s high school tournament now hope to build a more robust STEM program spanning multiple schools and a competitive league, starting in Minnesota. Wetherall likens the idea to a mix between FIRST Robotics, pinewood derby, and theatrical set design. FIRST Robotics is an international high school robotics competition in which students and their mentors build their own machines. Pinewood derby races challenge children to build their own toy cars to compete on a sloping track. The set design aspect comes because students can create their own illuminated gates for the drone courses.
“Kids have already asked about having a drone club—they want to race more, a lot more,” Lee said.
Students from both schools studied drones, either in elective or in an advanced engineering classes, ahead of the tournament. Their teachers would sometimes find them arriving as early as 6:30 am on school days so that they could work on their drones. At both schools, students were taught how to build, modify, and fly Tiny Whoop drones. Those machines are lightweight, easy to alter, and not as expensive as the larger five-inch racing drones used by more advanced leagues, such as the progressional Drone Racing League.
“Tiny Whoops are all about tinkering and building and rebuilding and enhancing,” Wetherall said. “You’ve got a little flying computer with video technology in it, battery technology in it, a flight control board that requires some elementary coding to design how you want to fly and the students can’t stop wanting to learn more and more when they’re doing this because they’re so captivated by the opportunity to fly around and see what it looks like to fly around. It just feels like play for them.”
The fact that building and flying these drones feels so much like play, is why many professional and amateur pilots have found their way into the activity in the first place. One of the pilots who competed in the elite race during the high school tournament, 19-year-old Sam Westlake, had dreamt of shrinking himself down to the size of his legos and blasting off in a toy spaceship when he was a young kid. When he saw a video of first-person-view drone racing as a teenager, he was immediately hooked. FPV drones enable users to see a real-time feed from their machine’s camera as they fly around, giving Westlake the impression of being shrunk down to size.
“Traditionally, these expensive and highly technical hobbies have been restricted to people who have the time and budget to crash their drones and fix them. Now that it’s getting put into schools, and schools are budgeting for this because it’s a critical part of STEM, it’s changing who can physically participate in this hobby,” Westlake said. “It’s great to see the next generation get into it because they’re only going to get better and better than the generation ahead of them. Plus, it’s an excellent way to introduce STEM to any student. Who doesn’t want to fly around a room like they’re playing a video game?”
Lee believes that getting Apple Valley on board with a drone club or racing team will be an easy sell because it encapsulates so many components of STEM. Students at Apple Valley learned how to solder and used 3D printers to make frames for their drones. They kept a log of all the modifications they made, and studied the physics of flight and the inner workings of batteries. In the fabrication lab they used vinyl cutters, laser engravers, and desktop mills.
The teacher views the drone class as a way to bring together not just science, technology, engineering, and math, but also communication, design, and creativity.
According to Wetherall, at least 30 other school programs have since inquired about how they can get involved next year. HydraFPV is looking to significantly expand the number of schools involved in the tournament. Wetherall also hopes to include middle schools so that students can get their hands on drones at a younger age. Currently there are only scattered school drone programs around the U.S., including a growing number of clubs in Ohio.
Tournament organizers are also focused on getting more girls involved. No high school girls signed up for the drone classes at Apple Valley and St. Louis Park, and therefore no girls competed in Minnesota’s first high school drone racing tournament. However, there was interest from middle school-aged girls. Of the 16 Apple Valley Middle School drone students present, six were girls.
Wetherall, who hopes to get drones into the middle school his eldest daughter attends by next year, believes girls are just as eager to learn about them. Earlier in May, he attended Technovation Minnesota’s Appapalooza, an app development competition for school-aged girls, and received positive feedback about adding drone building and racing to the event for 2020.
“I was standing in a room with a 1,000 people and 400 high school and middle school girls and I said ‘Let me know if you’re interested in getting into drone racing next year.’ All 400 hands shot up, and that was amazing to see,” he said.