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‘They get it’: Youths readily embrace drone-aircraft technology

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Tim Ellis / KUAC
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Ethan MacLee, left, and Nick Adkins sort through some drone-aircraft components during the July 12 presentation in the Delta Junction Junior High School library. Adkins is operations director for UAF's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration.

UAF outreach program harnesses enthusiasm to ‘trick’ kids into learning about aviation safety, opportunities

The University of Alaska Fairbanks runs one of the nation’s top research programs on remotely piloted drone aircraft. The UAF Geophysical Institute's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration pioneers development of drone aircraft for research, industry and other applications. And it’s helping teach the next generation of drone pilots through an outreach program it offers schools around the state.

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Tim Ellis / KUAC
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Adkins has talked about drone-aircraft systems to many groups of young people statewide like these in the Delta Junior High library.

The dozen or so middle-schoolers were antsy even before Nick Adkins arrived for his talk about the cool stuff that the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration is doing with drones. They’re all members of a model-aircraft club called Delta-Greely R-C Fliers, and they got even more agitated when Adkins gave them a brand-new controller.

One student, fifth-grader Ethan MacLee, told a visitor that he’s been reading up on that controller model.

“Did you know I found out every last detail about it? So, I’m basically a master at it.”

MacLee and a few others were ready to break out the new controller and try it out right away. But Norm Congrove, who was teaching the summer school class at Delta Junction Junior High School, was just trying to get the students to chill out and listen to what Adkins had to say.

“Ethan! Put it down,” Cosgrove told the master controller. “Go talk to your buddies …”

But Adkins seized on the teach-able moment, and tossed a boxful of model RC airplane parts onto a table to keep Ethan and his buddies busy.

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Tim Ellis / KUAC
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Norm Cosgrove shows off some of the remote-controlled model aircraft on display at the Delta Junior High library that he and members of the Delta-Greely RC Fliers club use.

“A couple things I want to point out,” Adkins said. “Notice it’s color-coded? You see that?

“Uh-huh,” Ethan meekly replied.

“And then, when you’re putting it together, if you think about it, things are designed to go together,” Adkins said, before launching into an explanation on how Ethan and other students gathered around the table should assemble the drone components.

Adkins is the center’s operations director, and he’s given this talk to students all around the state -- in Fairbanks and Anchorage and smaller communities like Galena, Fort Yukon and Nenana. He says the kids are always excited and can’t wait to get their hands on a controller, even if it’s just connected to the flight simulator that he brings along.

“All kids have different interests,” he said in an interview before his talk. “So, some of them, you can’t get ‘em off the simulator.”

But others, like Ethan, also are mechanically-minded.

“We have a drone that we take apart and we put back together,” he said. “It’s an old Army drone … and they just love doing that. And they will take it apart and put it back together over and over and over again.”

Center director Cathy Cahill says her staff sees that kind of enthusiasm every time they give an outreach talk. She says that’s probably in part because the students have grown up with devices powered by the same technology that drones use. So, they’re quick learners.

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Tim Ellis / KUAC
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Cathy Cahill, director of UAF's Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration, in the ACUASI hangar at Fairbanks International Airport with a Sentry drone in the background. The drone was included on ACUASI's float in Saturday's Golden Days Parade.

“You put a controller in their hand or a phone in their hand, and they get it," Cahill said in a July 15 interview. "And so, these are just glorified video games, as far as they’re concerned.”

Adkins says he harnesses that enthusiasm by requiring students to learn about the rules of flying drones and other aviation regs. He says the growing popularity of drones has created airspace conflicts in many areas, some resulting in midair collisions. In response, the Federal Aviation Administration is funding outreach efforts like UAF’s, to promote safety.

“So, we ‘trick’ them into learning a bunch of rules about aviation,” he said. “Y’know -- stay below 400 feet, be aware of the airspace that you’re in and understand you could cause a problem. All the things that the FAA is really concerned about.”

Cahill says Adkins also talks about UAF’s development of drones for research, like a project using the center’s SeaHunter drones to help prevent an endangered whale species from colliding with ships off Canada’s northeastern coast. Center drones also are being tested as a platform for surveying the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and as a means of delivering medicine and other supplies to remote villages.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.