Oakland students take flight in drone pilot training course

Class prepares them to take FAA drone pilot exam

10/19/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

Blue and white lights blink. Tiny electric motors whir. Propellers turn.

Resembling tiny spaceships, a fleet of flying drones buzzes through the Oakland High School cafeteria.

Students controlling the devices are on a mission: keep the drones aloft, run through a series of maneuvers and earn a “rookie” flight badge.

“You have to control every single part of it,” said student Jake Hoyt, as he explained the challenge of keeping the drone flying while avoiding contact with the cafeteria ceiling.

Nothing’s automatic, he added.

“Except gravity,” he said with a smile. “That part’s pretty automatic.”

Digital media teacher David Kellogg started the drone class—officially known as a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) certification course—this year. It’s the only class of its kind in Tacoma Public Schools.

Oakland student flying a drone
Students earn credits as they study drone basics and practice flying
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Students earn credits as they study drone basics and practice flying, while also delving into flight theory and the physics of flight. At the same time, the class prepares them to take a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) exam that will grant them a license to work as a commercial drone pilot. Passing the exam isn’t a requirement to pass the class, but Kellogg wants to encourage as many students as possible to take the exam.

Although people sometimes think of drones as either military tools or entertaining toys, practical applications abound. Some drones have built-in cameras, while others can operate with cameras affixed to them. Commercial photographers and videographers love using drones to capture birds-eye views of the world—everything from sports events to nature to real estate. Fire and police departments use them to assess hazards, scientists employ them to track wildlife in remote areas, construction firms use drones to map building sites. 

“The industry is very new,” Kellogg said. “People are discovering new uses for them all the time.”

He describes a project in which researchers used a drone to photograph whale flukes, or tails, which can identify individual animals. They also gathered DNA samples by flying drones through the mist that the whales spouted through their blowholes. It’s much simpler than getting close enough to gather tissue samples from the giant creatures.

A former journalist, Kellogg founded the photography program at Oakland, where he’s taught since 2012. He learned videography while teaching at an international school in China, and his interest in photography led him to become a licensed drone pilot. He sees plenty of job potential for students who obtain a commercial license.

Although hobbyists don’t need a license to fly small drones at lower altitudes, most pilots who fly drones for work or business purposes do. The federal aviation rules on who can fly—and where they can fly—are complicated.

Teacher Dave Kellogg explains a concept to a student at his computer
Teacher David Kellogg explains a concept in drone class
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In Tacoma, much of the city lies in airspace dominated by either the U.S. Air Force’s McChord Field or the Tacoma Narrows Airport. Flying commercial drones at higher altitudes in either space without a license can run afoul of FAA regulations.

Why all the restrictions?

In a word: safety.

“They are easy to fly and way too dangerous,” Kellogg said. A drone crashed into Seattle’s Space Needle several years ago. Others have crash landed into homes or people.

Kellogg emphasizes safe, competent and legal drone flight in his class. Students wear yellow safety vests and goggles when they fly the drones, which weigh about half a pound and have a wingspan of a little over nine inches. Batteries power the drones, which pilots maneuver with hand-held consoles. The console, which communicates with the drone using radio frequencies, resembles a video game controller.

“We want to teach kids the right way to approach this increasingly common, but potentially risky, technology,” Kellogg said.

Students are unanimous in their assessment of the class. They say it’s fun, but challenging.

Lynette Ahearn signed up for drone class to earn a pilot’s license. With the license, she said, “there are a bunch of jobs you can do.”

Students practice flying their drone through obstacles
Students maneuver their drone through obstacles
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She describes flying as fun but also nerve-wracking.

“You feel like you’re going to crash constantly,” she said.

She and other students say they must study a lot of material on the path to the FAA exam.

“You have to make sure you show up every day or you can fall behind easily,” she said.

“It’s fun learning about drones,” said student Jason LaDucer. “But it’s like learning another language. It’s difficult.”

How popular is Oakland’s drone class? Students who aren’t enrolled sometimes stop by just to watch.

“This class holds them,” he said of his 18 students. “They have an awareness that this is something historic that they’re doing.”