Unmanned Aerial Systems Teach Ohio Students the Importance STEM

Unmanned Aerial Systems Teach Ohio Students the Importance STEM

Some lessons refuse to remain in textbooks and demand to be experienced. That was the genesis of Destination Dayton, a competition held in August and sponsored by Ohio Robotics. Seven teams of high school students (28 in all) completed a series of challenges using a small-scale, helicopter-like unmanned aerial system, or UAS, commonly referred to as drones. The maneuvers at the heart of the competition were conducted within a Styrofoam mockup of downtown Dayton, Ohio.

If this sounds like teenage fantasy disguised as learning, think again. While organizers acknowledge a definite fun factor, they say the competition required a lot of hard work. It also delivered a tremendous amount of learning in some key areas.

First, the competition was developed to impress upon students the importance and interconnectedness of science, technology, education and math, or STEM – areas in which the U.S. is seeking to make improvements.

Second, Destination Dayton offered students the opportunity to learn about video surveillance. With the goal of making the competition even more realistic, video technology was used to capture the maneuvers performed by each team’s UAS,, creating a visual record and, at the same time, introducing students to the concepts of surveillance.

In addition to serving as an advisor to the competition, Jeffrey Blair, CEO of Savvux Technology Solutions, a Dayton-based software integrator, customized the open architecture video management software (VMS) from Milestone Systems for the competition. He is no stranger to the complexities of video surveillance.

Since launching Savvux in 2012, Blair has worked closely with the emergency response units of several municipalities to fine tune the process of using the GPS coordinates that come through a call to 911 to “turn” a camera to the exact location of the event. That, he says, is an efficient way to validate whether the call is real or a prank and, if it is real, determine the response by gauging the incident’s severity. In addition to working with numerous customers in the U.S., he is currently writing interfaces for scanners developed by SICK Group based out of Germany and for sensors manufactured by the Japanese company Optex.

Unmanned Aerial Systems Teach Ohio Students the Importance STEMBlair believes that teaching students to work with UASs will instill in them the importance of using technology in beneficial ways. 

“It’s up to us to put intelligent standards and restrictions in place to ensure that UASs are used in a responsible way.”

Including video surveillance, he says, enhances the real-world applicability even further, “The big thing is that a lot of cameras are recording all the time, creating a previously unattainable level of situational awareness. For example, conducting video surveillance with UASs has the potential to help first responders save more lives by avoiding harmful situations.”

An Extra Dimension of Reality

Using VMS from Milestone Systems to manage cameras provided by Axis Communications and Sentry 360, Blair added an extra – visual - dimension of reality to the competition by recording it.

“We thought it was a nice link because a lot of what we do at Savvux is related to urban surveillance,” Blair said. “We provided the software to record the competition with the idea that in an urban environment, situational awareness is critical. Similar to what we provide for our clients, the Milestone system was our recording engine. It documented the competition.”

While each of the five cameras installed within the mockup were preset to offer a specific view – one looked down on the entire model city, for example, while others were trained on the Styrofoam buildings, cranes or other objects – nothing within the competition’s environment was out of their visual reach. Blair added cameras to the map he uploaded into the Milestone VMS; clicking on any camera icon on that map prompted the nearest camera to pan-tilt and serve up the requested view.

“Destination Dayton was designed to create a to-scale mockup of the city that students were flying missions through and around,” Blair said. “Organizers wanted visual feedback, so we used Milestone video technology to deliver.”

Beyond the feedback, however, is something Blair said he thinks is far more important: The fact that their every move was being recorded gave participants a taste of what the future might bring.

“This year, we were keeping an eye on the people who were keeping an eye on the city,” said Blair, who adds that he plans to include even more cameras in next year’s competition and perhaps even attach them to the UASs. “In the real world, surveillance is becoming a fact of life and a useful tool for safety. For those students who go on to engineer real-world UASs or related technologies, the Dayton competition introduced the concept that what they develop may be used for monitoring many things.”

Another benefit of recording the competition is that students could use the video to improve their technical skills. “They can see that if they’d flown in at a better angle, for example, they maybe could have accomplished their mission more quickly,” Blair says.

He believes the biggest benefit of incorporating video surveillance into Destination Dayton will come from acclimating students to new career realities and lead to more responsible use of video surveillance capabilities.

“It’s here and growing,” he said. “So let’s do it appropriately.”

A Lot of Hard Work

Destination Dayton participants had a great time, according to Blair, but behind the façade of entertainment there was a lot of hard work – and a lot of learning.

“Destination Dayton showed students the importance and application of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM,” said Blair. “They used basic kits to build their UASs, which were model quadcopters. They had to program them so they could be operated remotely, and learn to fly them through the Styrofoam mockup of downtown Dayton to complete a series of tasks such as picking up and moving specific objects.”

In addition, the students were required to document and present their work to industry leaders from around Dayton, whose history of taking to the skies is reflected in its motto: Birthplace of Aviation. (As many locals point out, with the exception of their famous first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, most of the Wright brothers’ pioneering work was done in their native southwestern Ohio, not far from Dayton.)

“Every component of the competition was rooted in STEM with a heavy dose of real-world practicality,” Blair said. “It was design, build and execute. It was a learning laboratory for how to think through problems outside the classroom. The students learned how to deal with risks and manage the learning curve. They had an opportunity to practice presenting what they learned. Then they got to go out and compete.”

When asked what is so important about STEM, Blair’s answer is simple: Everything.

“STEM is a part of everything we take for granted, from social media to automobiles,” he said. “Everything requires some sort of technology.”

Filling the Skills Gap

For all its emphasis on STEM, however, Blair believes the competition also incorporated other elements of Dayton’s economy.

“We felt the event had great balance that gave high school students the opportunity to develop technology while also getting to design, build and operate,” he said.

That is important for an area with such a dynamic economy. “There’s an astounding amount of aviation research here,” Blair said. Indeed, the area is home to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, one of the country’s largest, the Air Force Research Labs and the Air Force Institute of Technology; combined, the three entities employ 26,000, including 32 generals.

At the same time, the city has a strong manufacturing heritage. With a large portion of this sector expected to retire in the next decade, coupled with the increasing significance of technology, the area is anticipating a skills gap. “We’re trying to provide the pipeline that will get today’s students started so we can meet the demand and help Dayton keep its competitive edge in advanced manufacturing,” Blair says. “But there’s also a huge technology component. That’s why we got involved: We want kids with strong technology skills.”

According to Blair, Milestone’s open platform definitely helped the competition foster some of those skills.

“The most important thing is that it provided an additional sense of realism. They’re not just flying copters around having a good time. They’re learning about product development and how it all works.”

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