By Abigail W. Adams, The Lincoln County News
WISCASSET, Maine — The nationwide controversy over unmanned aerial vehicles spilled into the Wiscasset selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, Aug. 4. The school committee’s request to use $4,750 from the Mary E. Bailey Fund to purchase drone kits for use in a planned class on unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs was denied in a split 2-2 vote on the select board.
David Cherry and Judy Flanagan voted in opposition, due largely to objections connected to the broader debate over the commercialization of a technology that was first introduced with a military use.
Wiscasset High School will now have to cancel the course and reassign the 28 students who signed up for it, school personnel said. “We’re going to have some very upset kids,” school committee Chair Steve Smith said.
Smith himself was very upset. “I never anticipated they would be against drones,” he said.
Superintendent Heather Wilmot, Smith, Wiscasset Middle High School Principal Cheri Towle, and Jesse Hinman attended the selectmen’s meeting to lobby for the funding request.
The drone course, the UAV Academy, was developed in partnership with Wiscasset High School alumnus and recent University of Maine graduate Hinman. According to Towle, one of the first things she did as a new principal was survey students about improvements they wanted to see at the school. They overwhelmingly asked for new and innovative courses.
With a major in new media, Hinman pursued bringing UAV technology to students in Maine for his final project. Hinman presented the proposed course to Towle and the school department latched on as part of its interest in developing a new science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum for the school.
The course would have instructed students on broad issues related to UAV technology, walked students through building a “hobby drone” or small-scale drone in line with model aircraft, as opposed to the Predator and Reaper drones used in military operations, and used the drones as teaching instruments to cover a broad base of science disciplines.
While funding for a STEM lab was voted down at the Wiscasset School Department’s town-wide budget meeting, the department still hoped to be able to offer the UAV course through use of the Mary E. Bailey fund to purchase the drone kits to be used in the course.
The request was for $4,750 to buy five drone kits to use in the course. The Mary E. Bailey fund has approximately $316,000 in it, selectmen said.
While UAV courses are springing up in high schools across the country, the course would have been the first of its kind in Maine, Hinman said. It was one of the most popular new courses offered for the 2015-2016 school year with 28 students already signed up for it, Towle said. Those students will now need to be reassigned to different classes.
Cherry was clear at the outset he would be voting in opposition to the drone course. “I do not support the development or expansion of UAVs,” Cherry said. “I feel it is a gross violation of privacy rights.” Cherry said he was active in protests to prevent Amazon from using drones as a delivery tool for packages.
The proposal for the drone kit included a camera to be mounted on it and video goggles to allow the drones to be viewed out of sight, which Cherry named as a major concern. However, the proposal stated the equipment could have been eliminated, which would have only allowed for line-of-sight operation of the drone.
According to Smith, the drone course offered an opportunity to teach students about the broad issues related to drones in a controlled setting and the Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to regulate them.
“This is a tough decision for me,” Selectman Judy Flanagan said. She agreed largely with the objections raised by Cherry but also recognized the need to create engaging coursework at the high school. Chair Ben Rines also agreed with many of the objections raised by Cherry, stating drones were something he associated with “weapons of mass destruction.”
“I agree with David,” Rines said, “but I also really want to see the high school succeed.” When it came time to vote, Rines and Selectman Jeff Slack voted in favor of the funding request, and Flanagan and Cherry voted in opposition. While the vote split 2-2, the motion to approve the request failed.
Rines suggested the school department return after November when a new selectman is voted in and Wiscasset once again has a five-member board, which may change the vote.
“It was an honor to be here and to have been able to present this to you,” Hinman said to the selectmen.