Salamanca Offers Unique Drone Flying Course To Students

Posted by Vincent Pezzimenti on 6/5/2019 8:25:00 AM

Noticeable in the supply closet that connects the high school science classrooms of Mr. Nick D’Arienzo and Mr. Gene Jankowski are drones of all shapes, sizes, and sophistication.

Mr. Jankowski shows off the fleet of aerial machines with great pride. The sight of them confirms Salamanca City Central School District’s commitment to a new, different, and modern education for its students.

A dozen high schoolers are taking an elective course called Robots, Drones, and Rovers this year. The final months of the course are dedicated to preparing the students to take and pass an FAA test to become fully-licensed drone pilots with ability to fly commercially and make money legally through flying projects.

Salamanca is the first school district in the country known to offer such a curriculum.

“I think some of the students still don’t get how lucky they are,” said Mrs. Kim Dry, who co-teachers the curriculum with Mr. D’Arienzo.

On a recent chilly and breezy morning, the class went outside for a flying exercise using flimsy SYMA drones. They were challenged with flying a rectangular pattern while keeping the drone steady and on path. Fighting intermittent wind gusts, many of the students struggled at a task by which even seasoned pilots would be challenged.

“This drone has no stability,” Mrs. Dry said. “If they can do it here, they can do it on any of them.”
Students spent most of the winter months and first days of spring learning to fly on flight simulators in the classroom.

“I think they’re finding that what they do on the simulator is a lot different than what they do outside,” Mr. D’Arienzo said. “It’s better to practice with the cheaper, smaller drones. Everything else is way easier. It makes you aware of things like wind, different directional flying, going backward, and just getting used to that. Those activities build those skills and awareness.”

The curriculum, created by nationally regarded SkyOp, LCC, includes 20 units that prepare students to earn licensing.

“The whole curriculum is constantly updated,” Mr. D’Arienzo said. “If there’s one little change, they go back and update everything in the curriculum that is associated with a particular rule change.”

The last handful of classes is heavy on getting students ready for the Part 107 knowledge test for FAA licensing. Licensed pilots can work on construction sites, search and rescue teams, film crews, showing off real estate, and even deliver Amazon packages – to name a few opportunities.

“All the challenges we set up is stuff you would do if you had to check out a bridge for construction or search and rescue … any of those,” Mrs. Dry said.

Among the district’s fleet of aircraft are extravagant Phantom and Mavic drones that come with a 4K camera and can smoothly travel up to 40 mph. Some models retail for thousands of dollars.

A lot has changed in the three years since drone flying education was introduced to Salamanca students. Mrs. Dry was provided small, inexpensive aircrafts and little else to get started with a class.

“I used to fly those in that class,” she said. “They decided to go bigger and better … which is super cool. We’re really progressive.”

Mrs. Dry, Mr. D’Arienzo and Mr. Jankowski each passed the FAA drone licensing test in the last year.
Students 16 and older are eligible to take the test, which Mr. D’Arienzo said is “essentially their final exam.”

“It’s a similar knowledge test that actual commercial pilots take,” Mr. D’Arienzo added. “It’s a lot about weather, cloud behavior, mapping, reading charts, latitude and longitude, GPS stuff. You figure ‘I’m just doing this for a drone license, what’s the big deal?’ But they’re considered pilots and they’re treated as such. They follow FFA rules and guidelines. There’s a lot to it and it’s getting more complicated as more drones get into the sky.”

Underclassmen who pass the test may have the opportunity to take an advanced course.

“It’s going to be more project based, working with the community,” Mrs. Dry said. “They’ll have a senior capstone project. They’ll maybe have to work with the city or park or search and rescue. That’s our goal for kids who get certification.”

For now, the students will continue to brush up on the rules, regulations, and intricacies of unmanned aircraft flight while honing their piloting skills.

“That’s really what we’re getting at … improving skills and awareness, and knowledge of the industry,” Mr. D’Arienzo said. “We want to build skills to help them find a niche in the industry or to just fly recreationally in their backyard.”