Kids pilot drone training

Buhle Mashiqana and Kieran de Bruyn practise with a drone simulator.

A Wizard, a Lizard and a Tiny Whoop were at the Curro School in Brackenfell this week. If all this sounds somewhat sci-fi, that’s because it is.

The Lizard, Wizard and Tiny Whoop are drones and Drone Racing Africa trained 10 Grade 4 and 5 learners on how to fly them on Monday August 14.

“Drones are becoming very popular,” said robotics and IT teacher Lenore Rix. “We want to prepare our learners for the jobs of the future.”

Beyond just teaching pupils drone flying skills, which are making their way into nearly every field, they also want the children to be able to compete against drone racing clubs.

“There are a lot of opportunities in drones,” said Ms Rix. “The market is growing and we want to make sure that our learners get the skills that they need to compete.”

But drone racing involves a lot more than just flying cool gadgets by remote control: there’s also building, both the drones and the race-course elements like gates and lights; design and electronics, as well as technical skills like wiring and soldering.

“Robotics and IT and all of that are coming together. Technology and education go hand in hand, and you can’t separate the one from the other these days,” Ms Rix said.

“Jobs are changing. Pupils who are in Grade R now, the jobs that they will do when they finish school don’t exist yet. We are trying to prepare learners for jobs that don’t even exist yet.”

School principal Henk Weyers said he got the idea to start a drone club from the internet.

“I love tech stuff and robotics, and I saw on YouTube and ESPN the Drone Prix, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we do something like this?’”

Mr Weyers and Ms Rix started looking at what was feasible for the school’s indoor sports venue and primary school children. They discovered the Tiny Whoop, a little drone used for training and hobbies.

Mr Weyers and Ms Rix bought two Tiny Whoops and practised with them. To avoid unnecessary breakages, they wanted to get comfortable with the pricey devices first before introducing them to the unpractised pupils.

Matthew Brooks, of Drone Racing Africa, said the Tiny Whoop and controller could cost about R1 700.

Once Mr Weyers and Ms Rix were comfortable with their new toys, they contacted Curro’s head office and told them about their plans. The head office advised they work with Drone Racing Africa.

“And now we are the pilot in the Western Cape for Curro to do drone training,” he said.

On the first of two training sessions, which were a week apart, pupils practised on simulators before getting to fly a Tiny Whoop. Drone Racing Africa then took pupils outside to watch a demo of the Lizard and Wizard camera drones. Pupils took turns watching from the drone’s viewpoint through large “goggles”.

Mr Brooks said The Lizard’s rotor blades spin at 100000 rpm, and the device, with the controller, costs about R3000. The Wizard, which was the biggest drone used on the day, is even more expensive – about R7500. The goggles cost about R2000.

Excitement mounted as the drones zoomed at high speed, doing loops and flips. One child, watching with the goggles screamed when he saw from the drone’s view that it was zooming towards him at high speed before making a sharp turn.

The fun ended when the Wizard made a spectacular nose dive. Miraculously the drone survived, but not without injuries. The Northern News asked how bad the damage was. Not too bad, said Mr Brooks. The drone could be easily repaired but there would me no more Wizard flights that day.

The pupils greeted this news with a loud and despondent: “Oh, come on!”

This was despite it being well after 5pm or that some parents had already arrived to take them home.

Mr Weyers found their enthusiasm encouraging as the drones will form part of the school’s technology classes. Drones opened up job opportunities in a growing number of fields, he said, such as photography, security, police and construction.

Ms Rix said her friend, a wine farmer, regularly hired drones to collect data all over the farm.