UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

High schools visit UND for a UAV Grand Prix

For Drone Safety Day, UND introduces educators and students to the growing sport of drone racing

Student holds drone
Lukas Jorgensen, UND student and president of the RC Club, holds one of the small drones used for the race. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

There’s a good chance if you’ve seen a nature documentary or action film in the past 15 years, you’ve seen a drone at work. Sweeping shots of natural vistas and dynamic views of car chases have been captured by drones for years. But, unmanned aerial vehicles also have found practical applications in a range of other industries, including the recent launch of drone delivery programs by Amazon and UPS. Now, UAVs are entering the realm of sports, with drone racing becoming a popular after-school activity for middle and high school students.

Capitalizing on the burgeoning sport and recognizing the necessity of training capable drone pilots to support the aircraft’s utility in a number of industries, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences hosted a workshop for educators and students from the region on FAA’s Drone Safety Day on April 29.

Aimed at strengthening the field of UAVs, UND capitalized on their FAA Workforce Development Grant to introduce drone recreation and education to middle and high school students, offering a two-day crash course in drone racing and its benefits as a fun, STEM-centric activity for students.

Robbie Lunnie, assistant professor of Aviation at UND as well as a UAS enthusiast, said that these events are important to expanding interest in UAS education.

“I like events like this because it really helps to share that excitement for UAS and aviation,” Lunnie said. “Aerospace and aviation educators and professionals are a very passionate community, when you get everyone together to share and talk about that passion, it really helps to grow interest in these fields.”

Robert Lunnie with drone.
Robbie Lunnie, assistant professor of Aviation, shows off one of UND’s drones. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Paul Snyder and Leslie Martin, two UND faculty members working on the FAA Workforce Development Grant that made the event possible, developed a comprehensive program for visiting educators.

“We’re hoping to give these teachers the resources to get programs off the ground at their schools,” Martin said. “We’re giving them textbooks, drone kits, and trying to point them in the right direction so they can learn more about this and bring it back to their schools.”

Snyder agrees that drones are an excellent way to introduce people to the mechanical and technical aspects of aviation and UAVs, while remaining accessible to those who are not aviation professionals. Recreational drone flying also could serve as a gateway to explore various industries such as agriculture, which already has begun to adopt drone technology for tasks such as spraying crops and collecting data.

Along with offering their expertise, Martin and Snyder invited guest speakers to the event. Several organizations, including Fenworks, a Grand Forks-based esports company, were present to share the resources and information available to schools to get their students involved.

Kaleb Dschaak, Fenworks CEO and an alumnus of the University, said the company has just launched its drone racing program for North Dakota schools, with 13 schools already on board. Along with getting young people involved in after-school programs that engage them and introduce them to STEM topics, Dschaak also pointed toward the academic benefits of drone racing.

“One of our goals is to connect schools to higher ed facilities so that your drone students can be identified by universities and then hopefully one day offered scholarships by universities to pursue data science, UAS and other types of degrees at these institutions,” Dschaak said.

Educators also were taken on a tour of the aerospace department’s facilities, ending with a demonstration of a drone designed and fully 3D-printed by UND students in one of the department’s UAV classes. One of the students who helped with the project, Lukas Jorgensen, demonstrated its functionality to the guests by flying it in the classroom it was built.

Drone in flight
The Hawk, a drone designed and 3D-printed by UND students, takes flight. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Jorgensen, president of the UND UAS/RC Club and senior in the high-altitude UAS program said he first got into drones through recreational flying.

“I started out in commercial aviation, but then I got into the RC Club a couple of years ago and pretty much fell in love with it,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen is also one of the students working on the FAA Workforce Grant, which he finds vital to growing interest in UAS among younger students. Jorgensen has found great success already, with his recreational interest in drones blossoming into many job opportunities and a potential career.

“Right now, I’ve got four jobs and most of them are because of my interest in the RC Club,” he said. “A lot of employers look at the RC Club for prospects because they know we’re dedicated and have a lot of hands-on experience. It’s been really great, and I don’t know of any other school that offers as many resources in this as UND does.”

The visiting students engaged in a full-day course taught by representatives from Youth Drone Sports Championships, a Minneapolis-based organization specializing in educating students of all ages on the ins and outs of drone racing.

Drone racing has been a competitive sport for nearly a decade, with a professional league being formally established in 2015. It’s also become quite popular among university-level students, with more than 28 schools affiliated with the College Drone Racing Association.

It’s no surprise then that high schools are getting more interested in incorporating it into their programs. Drone racing, while complicated due to the technological and mechanical knowledge required to operate and repair drones, is a fun way to incorporate STEM fields into an esports-like experience.

The comprehensive course gave students hands-on experience with everything from drone components to sim training through the Velocidrone simulator. Students spent hours flying virtual drones in the program, getting a feel for how the sometimes-unruly drones handle and how to adjust on the fly.

The training culminated in a race between two teams, the Flippy Floppies and the Weird Unicorns, with students rotating in and out between heats. The goal was to hit 20 points by successfully finishing two laps before the other team, and it went right down to the wire.

The racing drones were small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but they were fast. As the students raced them around the small indoor track, the drones looked like erratic hummingbirds, crashing into the net housing the track and obstacles.

Drone racing isn’t easy and typically takes many hours of training to master. These students were still very new, but as the race continued, they got a handle on the pocket-sized aircraft and managed to maneuver them expertly, leading to several tight heats and an exciting race.

Ultimately, the Weird Unicorns came out on top with a 20-19 final score. The students then had the chance to watch their coaches, experienced pilots who helped YDSC instruct the students throughout the weekend, compete in their own race.

student operating drone
Brenden “Vapid” Marto straps his headset on to prepare for a friendly drone race. Photo by Walter Criswell/UND Today.

Brenden Marto, a UND commercial aviation student who goes by the name Vapid when racing, was one of the coaches who worked with the students for the weekend. He’s been racing drones with YDSC since 2019.

“This weekend was good,” Marto said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the students did a lot better than I would’ve expected.”

Leslie Martin agreed, saying that watching the students so engrossed in the activity was a pleasure.

“To me, it’s all about seeing those students excited and cheering each other on,” Martin said. “It’s been great to see them so engaged, working together to solve problems while they’re having fun. I think it’s great for students and teachers to see how great these programs can be and learn how to grow them at their own schools.”

A full video of the drone race can be found below: