By Erika Pesantes Sun Sentinel
It wasn’t just fun and games as students flew whizzing drones in a gymnasium at Florida Atlantic University on Saturday. It was competition.
The statewide tournament was dubbed the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge and pitted 18 middle and high schools from throughout South Florida against one another. The local teams, including host school Florida Atlantic High, were joined by a group that traveled from as far as Jacksonville, organizers said.
Drones are remote-controlled aircraft that hover in the air and also can be programmed to fly on their own with computer codes. They snap photos, read images and fly in a half-dozen directions. Ben Coleman, a 17-year-old FAU High student, helped organize the event that drew about 150 students
“This entire competition stemmed out of my nerdiness and the nerdiness of my friends, because we just started typing, playing around with code and we found that we were able to manipulate these drones to do things we wanted it to by writing programs,” he said. “So we decided to open that up to other schools to give them all the opportunity to do that.”
Each team practiced and competed with the same drone model to even out the playing field. The challenges included a race, an obstacle course of colorful hoops angled in varying directions and a “medical drop” mission in which students delivered medication to a makeshift village represented by a cardboard box and really just 25 feet away.
Spectators clapped and yelled out in encouragement. Some drones came crashing down to the ground, while others made impressive midair somersaults as “pilots” and “co-pilots” guided each pint-sized aircraft.
Students also gave presentations about their work with drones before a panel that included a college professor, programmer, grad student and representative from a local drone company.
“This is the academics behind the game,” said Allan Phipps, the Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) coordinator at FAU High. “They are having fun, but in the process learning.”
Kelly Caputo, a biology teacher and science team leader at Deerfield Beach High, said her students were so dedicated to prepping for the tournament in a classroom dubbed the “drone lab” that she would force them to go home. Given the choice, they would have gone to school on a Sunday to work with their drones, she said.
Caputo’s diverse group of students included those who spoke Mandarin Chinese, Creole, Spanish, French and English. But they all communicated best when working with the same computer code, or language, to fly the drone, she said.
“The students were talking the same language,” she said. “There were so many barriers before.”
For Michael Simpson, one of Caputo’s students, the new technology and innovation is simply fun to play with and excites his engineering mind.
“Everything you see around is done by engineers. Being a nerd is a good thing, ’cause you get paid,” Simpson said. “The nerdier you are, the more you get paid, the higher the salary and the more fun it is if you enjoy it as a career.”