Chris Praml has no plans to use his new drone for surveillance, targeted killings or snooping on celebrities.
Rather the Mount Olive High School teacher will use the school’s newly-purchased “Phantom 2” drone to help in producing the school’s television show, “Marauder Madness” and other school productions.
The district bought two drones this year from a Chinese-based company, DJI. The company is in Shenzhen, China, known as China’s equivalent of the American Silicon Valley. Each drone cost around $1,300, with one assigned to the high school television production program and another to the district offices.
The drones were purchased as part of the district’s growing emphasis on the STEM curriculum, short for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
When most people hear the word “drone,” they think of military uses such as the Predators which can strike a target and be directed by military personnel using joysticks thousands of miles away. The “Phantom 2” is nothing like that.
“Ours look like videogame pieces,” Praml said. “It’s not threatening at all.”
The drone is a quad-copter and resembles a small helicopter about two feet across. It is powered by a battery that can keep the craft aloft for 25 minutes before it must be recharged. A small camera is mounted under the quad-copter and sends images via WiFi to a smart phone which is connected to the main control panel. The images are kept steady by a on-board stabilizer.
The operator can view what the drone sees in real time as joy sticks are used to maneuver the craft up and down and laterally.
Praml said the first uses of the drone will be to take aerial shots of the school, sporting events and other related activities for the morning, “Marauder Madness” show.
“It’s a good tool,” Praml said. “It gives kids another avenue to get what they see in their heads on the screen. It opens up more ideas and a comfort level with the technology.”
Robohub.org described how drone programs can resemble “a nesting doll for concepts in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
“A drone is a complex machine, and once you peek inside, one STEM concept leads to another,” said the website.
To design the aircraft, students learn concepts like Bernoulli’s principle, to determine parameters such as stall speed. Learning about stall speed leads to opportunity to discuss electricity and electric motors and a simple segue to lessons about battery chemistry and capacity. And as the drone is dependent on a small microcontroller, computer programming is also a part of the discussion.
The Federal Aviation Administration dictates that private drones fly no higher than 400 feet. Praml said the school drone has gone as high as 200-feet in tests but will normally go nowhere near that high, probably limiting to above the school roof tops.
All unmanned, so-called aerial vehicle (UAV) operators also abide by all regulations set by such organizations as the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) and national airspace regulations, which include no fly zones over all airports.
The craft has plastic bumpers to protect in event of a crash or rocky landing. Pilots are trained to continue directing the craft even when a WiFi connection is interrupted and the camera stops sending images of its position.
Praml said students had two days of instruction and quickly learned how to use the craft, largely because of their experience with video games.
“The kids picked it up in a day,” he said. “It’s very intuitive to them. To launch and operate is quite simple.”
Alex Maya, 16, and Danny Antonacci, 17, both juniors, were among the students who learned to use drones.
“It is really cool,” said Antonacci. “It was really easy to learn to use.”
Maya said the drones allow the students to “move ideas into projects.”
Both students said their experience with joy sticks and video games helped speed up learning to use the drones.
Purchase of the drones is part of a program to update and expand the district technology. The television studio is currently being converted into fully digital at a cost of about $167,000. The former analog equipment was outdated, as it provided inferior quality and it was becoming difficult to find replacement parts, Praml said.
Praml said he never played video games as a youth growing up in Livingston, where he attended Livingston High School and later William Paterson University in Wayne. In college, he completed an internship with FOX News where he ran on-air teleprompting.
He manages the school television programming, which is shown on two public access channels, on FIOS and Cablevision.
The Marauder Madness show is broadcast for five minutes live, Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. It is fully written and produced by 17 students who begin daily productions at 7:20 a.m. The show includes school announcements, weather, world and national news, sports and entertainment.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicles and Systems International predicts there will be 30,000 drones flying in the U.S. by 2020, with most serving agriculture.
Drones are being used in filmmaking, agriculture, conservation, search and rescue, energy infrastructure, and more.
The uses of drones are expanding rapidly as is the controversy. Amazon planned to use drones to deliver packages at doorsteps but the FAA rejected the plan.
A report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said surveillance drones have been the subject of strong debate among legislators and the public, giving rise to proposed and enacted legislation. Most of the legislation requires long enforcement to get a probably cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation.
A bill placing guidelines on New Jersey officials’ use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, passed the state Senate last year but it was pocked vetoed on Jan. 21 by Gov. Chris Christie. Christie did not explain why he vetoed the legislation.
The Senate measure (S2702) would allow drones to be used by state, county and local police and fire departments and offices of emergency management and in criminal investigations and events that “substantially endanger the health, safety and property of the citizens of this state,” including missing-person searches, fires and forest fires, hurricanes, floods, droughts, explosions, acts of terrorism and civil disorder.
“Rules must be put in place to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a “surveillance society” in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government,” the ACLU said. “Drone manufacturers are also considering offering police the option of arming these remote-controlled aircraft with (nonlethal for now) weapons like rubber bullets, Tasers, and tear gas.”
The issue of drone regulations gained further concerns earlier in the month after near misses between aerial drones and aircraft at New York City’s Kennedy Airport.