The Modern Blanket Toss

On a dirt runway 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, Wally Flynn knelt over a dji Phantom drone. He checked its gimbals, noted the condition of the propellers and the camera attachment, listened for alert sounds, and backed away. At each step he recited what he had just done, part of a rigorous preflight procedure.

But it was difficult to understand a word of it, because Flynn was speaking in Yu’pik. A high school senior from the village of Chefornak on the Kuskokwim delta, Flynn had come here to Chena Hot Springs as part of EPSCoR’s “Modern Blanket Toss” program, which brings cutting-edge unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology to Alaska’s rural high schools.

“The purpose of the project is to expose students to science-related activities that broaden their horizons,” said John Monahan, who heads the UAF Upward Bound program and is in charge of the project. “It’s meant to be something captivating that’s fascinating and interesting to them, and gives them a hook on what a possible future career could be.”

“The Modern Blanket Toss” is a three-year project of UAF Upward Bound and EPSCoR to excite students about science and technology careers. Students from five rural high schools have learned about UAV’s and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) through afterschool activities, received immersive training in them during a residential summer program at UAF, and have been using the drones to undertake mapping projects to benefit their communities.

At least, that’s the theory. Monahan describes a three-year process of adapting to the challenges of harsh weather, isolation (three of the five schools are off the road system), and fragile, quickly outdated technology. “We really didn’t know that much about UAVs three years ago and part of it was a huge learning curve for us, and documenting everything we have discovered along the way,” he noted. “Some of the best learning was fixing the equipment and mapping the UAVs figuring out what was going wrong.”

Even as program emphases and equipment have shifted, students have been able to use the drones for multiple projects. In 2014 they mapped out the UAF Frisbee golf course, and in 2015 made similar maps of beaches and recreation areas around Fairbanks. During the school year, students in Nikiski and Chefornak worked to map methane pockets in nearby lakes and rivers, Bethel students looked for rotten ice on the Kuskokwim River, Shishmaref students mapped the erosion eating their shoreline, and Seward high-schoolers made 3D maps of inaccessible  mountain valleys to chart their potential to contribute to flooding. “The students seem to plug into community service,” Monahan said. “Helping somebody, and having a product they want to show in the end.”

The continued effort to put the drones to good use was what brought Wally Flynn and 15 fellow high-schoolers to Chena Hot Springs this May: the owner has grand plans to expand the property and wanted elevation data, and in exchange he hosted the students. Under wispy cirrus clouds, a group of students, instructors and technicians hiked above the resort, set up a hexacopter in a clearing amid spindly black spruce, ran through the customary checklist, and let fly. Manning the controls was Bethel student Danielle Kashatok, who watched intently as the drone elevated hundreds of feet and entered into a preprogrammed mapping routine. “I want to be a pilot when I grow up,” Kashatok said. “I feel like a pilot when I’m using the controller.”

Behind Kashatok, student Cyrus Kinegak of Chefornak alternated between studying drone feed on a laptop and scratching Yu’pik words in the dirt. Kinegak said the project fits well with his own goals. “I would like to follow in my brother’s footsteps, he used to be a pilot,” he said. “One of my dreams is to become a pilot, and using UAVs includes a lot of aviation.”

Back down the hill, Flynn and another set of students flew a dji Phantom with the loose idea of making a promotional video. Flynn maneuvered the drone between tall aspens and followed on foot, while other students pretended to be tourists, walking past a pony corral and staring into a chicken coop. A few minutes later, edging through some trees near the resort entrance, the Phantom clipped a branch and augured 10 feet straight down into a parking lot. Students and instructors picked it up, inspected it, and send it flying again within minutes. “It’s amazing how much these things can survive,” noted Adam Low, a curriculum developer with the project.

As the program draws to a close, Monahan said it has weathered every storm, both literal and figurative. Students have enjoyed the experience, evaluators have given it strong marks, and leaders are working on a proposal to expand the program. “We’ve had a bunch of roadblocks and hurdles that we have gotten past,” he said. “We learned so much that we are rewriting and enlarging it and talking about taking it nationwide.

A version of this story appeared in Rotor Drone Magazine.


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