Students showcase engineering talent with custom-modified competition drone
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In engineering education, there’s nothing better than seeing students apply their knowledge to real-world experiences. At Marshfield High School, two students have done just that. What started as a small step into aerial drones became a giant leap into a creative engineering project that challenged their design, engineering and fabrication skills.

Getting started with SkillsUSA drones

Wisconsin SkillsUSA UAV Drone CompetitionCaleb Henderson is the technology education teacher and a SkillsUSA advisor at Marshfield High School. When Wisconsin SkillsUSA announced they’d be offering a new Commercial sUAS Drone competition, he was intrigued. He saw the potential for learning and innovation it offered his students, but had never had the opportunity to incorporate it into his technical education classes. Until now.

The school leveraged a grant from the Department of Transportation which enabled them to purchase a cutting-edge MINDS-i drone from LAB Midwest for the competition. It’s “a great entry-level drone,” Henderson recalls. “Everything was there, everything was laid out, and that’s exactly what I needed.”

Now, the school just needed a team. Trevor Meyer and Owen Siegal were both juniors at Marshfield and had competed in other SkillsUSA events in the past. But they were looking for a new challenge, and the drone competition afforded the opportunity.

Drones: so much more than flying

Drone technology is so much more than learning how to fly. The sUAS Commercial Drone competition is a comprehensive contest that tests manual flight skills, maintenance and troubleshooting, and knowledge about FAA commercial drone regulations. The manual flight skills portion requires a mastery of controlled flight, hovering, interacting with objects, collision avoidance, object detection via cameras, and safe landing.

After the first competition run at regionals, Trevor and Owen faced a setback not uncommon to drone users. A crash during a practice flight left their drone in need of repairs. Rather than ordering replacement parts, the team had the idea to redesign the parts of the drone that were most vulnerable and rebuild it themselves.

Henderson was all on board. “I really encourage innovation and invention in my classroom,” he said. “The students that want to do great things will do great things.”

Getting creative to engineer drone modifications

Trevor and Owen approached their rebuild with two features in mind: modularity and durability. They wanted to be able to swap out components with minimal downtime, and they wanted a drone that could withstand the most possible force from a crash without damage.

They based the rebuild on the original MINDS-i drone, but made modifications where they saw an opportunity for improvement. That included components like the shape of the blades, the design of the done arms, the main body frame, the battery housing, the landing gear, and how all these components fit together.

For example, they designed the arms to lock in perfectly with the mainframe and included a cutout slot for cable management. That way they can replace the arms without reconfiguring any cables on the drone.

Each modification was a chance for the team to practice the engineering process. They filled a notebook with component designs and data from various tests throughout the build process. They utilized technology like design software, 3D printers, lathes and structural testing machines to carry out their work.

Choosing the right materials for the job is another common engineering function the team put to use. To ensure the new components’ durability, they conducted stress tests using different materials and infills. Owen explained the pros and cons of their options. “When you print out nylon, it’s printed in a powdered form. You can even machine it afterward. With PLA, it’s printed kind of like the grain in wood. So it’s only strong in one direction but not in another.”

The power of persistence and problem-solving

Like in the real world, the team faced unexpected challenges throughout the design and development process. The blades wouldn’t 3D print the way they wanted, the arms weren’t strong enough to withstand a crash, the battery housing would overheat…the list goes on. Despite these challenges, the team persisted in finding the root cause and building a solution for each.

Owen said what he learned most about the engineering process is “just getting used to the idea of not succeeding right away all the time, not finding the answer and trying to work through the process to get the answers yourself, instead of just relying on someone to tell you.”

Trevor added, “You’re definitely working on critical thinking skills. And coming back to the same thing, even though you know it’s not going to have a different result. But eventually, you’ll strike that one thing that’ll be like, ‘Eureka!’ That’s the moment you figure out what the problem was.”

This aspect of their journey emphasizes a crucial point – drone technology isn’t just about flying; it’s a powerful educational tool. It encourages students to think critically, solve problems, and persevere through challenges.

Drones: a great tool for comprehensive, career-oriented engineering education

The experience of building and flying a drone offered a valuable real-world application of classroom learning. It allowed the students to put their engineering design knowledge, problem-solving skills, and troubleshooting abilities to the test. Moreover, it demonstrated the practicality of 3D printing in manufacturing uniquely-shaped components.

For Henderson, it’s a no-brainer that technology education programs should get involved with drones. From design and problem-solving to programming, drones are a hands-on application of the learning that goes on in engineering programs every day.

“I would definitely recommend that, as a teacher, you get involved with this,” he said. “Drone technology is a great way to incorporate all of the different bits and pieces of curriculum that we do through engineering education.”

All that engineering work has practical applications in the workforce. “There’s a lot more that’s translated into career-oriented skills that we’re learning and using in school and later on in their careers down the road,” Henderson added.

The drone industry offers a myriad of career paths, from software engineering to mechanical and aerospace engineering. Today, drones are used in agriculture, civil engineering, national defense, search and rescue, logistics, manufacturing, oil and gas, entertainment, and countless other fields.

Marshfield High School’s journey into the world of drones is a testament to the power of education to inspire and empower students to pursue their passions, innovate, and overcome challenges. With Caleb Henderson’s guidance and Trevor and Owen’s determination, the sky is truly the limit for this team.

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