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Students build, race drones

The drone club at Letcher Middle School might sound like any other school club when you first hear about it — kids who like drones get to fly drones.

But there much more to it than what meets the eye. Not only do the kids fly drones, they build them.

“We actually (had) a drone race on March 12,” faculty advisor Bryant Combs said.

Not only did Letcher enter the drone race in Hazard, seventhgrader Carter Dollarhyde, 12, won in the Middle School Babyhawk race.

Letcher Middle is one of 16 schools around eastern Kentucky participating in a program intended to teach students about the aerospace industry. The Babyhawk is a mini drone the students used to learn to fly, but they also learned to build drones — including the circuit boards that control them — using component parts.

The drone program focuses on middle and high school students, but other agencies expand the concept to college students and adults.

The horse industry might be the most visible industry in the state and coal might have once been king, but aerospace is gaining quickly. The drone program at the schools is part of an effort by the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative to capture some of the magic of flight and turn it into skills kids can use to find a job or further their education.

“About four or five years ago, we started working with schools, and we knew that despite the information the state was putting out about aerospace industries in Kentucky, we did not have any aerospace program in the schools,” said Paul Green, now interim superintendent of Jackson Independent Schools, who still works in his spare time with the drone program.

The aerospace industry needs people not only for welding and metal work, but workers who know how to solder circuit boards, people with the know-how to program drones, and pilots for testing their products. While there are plenty of welders and metal fabricators in eastern Kentucky, people with the other skills are in short supply, and buying airplanes to teach them was out of the question.

“We couldn’t put people in planes — it’s just too expensive,” Green said.

But there was a lot of talk about drones, and Morehead State University was teaching college students to solder circuit boards and do the other work necessary to build miniature satellites.

“I saw a drone race on TV, and I said, What if we did that?” Green said. “What if we built them?”

KVEC has bought drone kits for schools for the past three years, and sponsors races every year at the Knott County Sportsplex. This year, 16 schools are participating.

USA Drone Port, a nonprofit startup in Hazard, has also been involved in some aspects of the school program, and offers classes to college students and adults in conjunction with Hazard Community and Technical College.

It teaches drone use for videography, photography, geographic information systems, surveying, mapping, power line inspections and roof inspections. It also teaches classes for emergency responders, such as search and rescue squads.

Bart Massey, director of the Drone Port, said the facility goes beyond training people to fly drones and build drones — it designs drones. He said the drone port has invented one aircraft that can take off by itself, deploy multi-rotor drones if it spots something it’s looking for on the ground, send slow-scan television pictures back to its operator, and land itself in less than seven feet.

For now, middle and high school students aren’t working on something that complicated, but do get to build drones from kits that KVEC bought, and those hand-built drones are the ones intended to race this spring. Several schools didn’t finish the drones on time, or in Letcher’s case, the drone fell off a table and broke before time for the competition. Schools without built-from-scratch drones raced the prebuilt models.

— By SAM ADAMS

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