Drones in STEM: How Beagle Drones’ Modular Drone Kits Are Being Used in the Classroom by Both Elementary and College Students
BY Zacc Dukowitz1 October 2019
The drone is so easy to make that the company boasts you can go “from building to flying in less than 30 minutes.”
Although the kit can be set up quickly for those just looking to fly, it’s modular parts also allow educators a special opportunity to slow down and talk in-depth about the different parts of a drone, covering how each part works from the perspectives of physics dynamics, electrical components, and software programming.
The kits have been used in educational settings as diverse as an elementary and middle school robotics club and the curriculum of a major university, allowing students to learn hands-on how drones work.
[95% of the students in Roseville High’s first drone program passed the FAA’s Part 107 test. Read about how they did it.]
From FPV Racing to STEM: How Beagle Drones Was Founded
Beagle Drones’ drone kit was not originally meant for education—it was actually made for FPV drone racing.
The company’s founder and CEO, Dwight Neptune, was an FPV racing fan who found the barrier to entry for FPV racing too high for many who might otherwise be interested in trying the new sport out.
When Neptune first got into FPV racing he tried to build his own drone, as many FPV racing pilots have done until recently due to a lack of drones made specifically for racing.
But he soon found that it was a lot more complicated to build a drone than he had been led to believe.
Soldering was often required, which could be dangerous. You also had to order several different parts from different places, then figure out how to put them all together once they arrived without any specific, step-by-step instructions on what went where.
The first drone Neptune made took him 30 days of work, and when he turned it on, it immediately burst into flames.
Many people would have walked away after reaching this point, or even far before reaching this point. Based on this experience, Neptune felt like there was a need in the market for an FPV racing drone that could be built easily, which wouldn’t require soldering or ordering parts from multiple manufacturers. And that’s how the Beagle Drones’ drone kit first came into being.
How Beagle Drones Got into Education
Just a few days after launching their first drone kit, a private school near the Beagle Drones office in Princeton, NJ reached out because they wanted to start a drone racing club at the school.
The initial interest in finding a drone kit that could be used for FPV racing soon led to other, more education-focused uses. One of the seniors at the school was able to use the drone kit for a senior science project, which required seniors to do or make something technical and then explain what they had done.
Through working in person with students at the private school, Neptune was able to fine-tune the drone kit by getting constant, direct feedback from students who were trying to build it.
At first, there was a lot to fix. Controllers might not work, or batteries would fail. Being able to work closely with students helped Neptune learn more about how to improve the kit, and also about what students and educators needed to get the most value out of the kit.
The BroBots Robotics Club Story
The BroBots is an elementary and middle school-level science team in Cypress, TX that competes in various science and STEM competitions. The team’s fearless leader is Yvonne Esch, a mother of two of its members and a science enthusiast. (In case you’re wondering, the club has had female members, and they have all reportedly been fine with the club’s name. 🙂 )
Last year, the BroBots entered a competition that required teams to build a “flying thing” that could deliver items to specific cells in a grid. The grid was a square measuring twenty feet by twenty feet, inside of which were concentric squares, laid out similar to how concentric circles appear in a target.
Each team would get points based on how many successful deliveries could be made to various points on the grid, with certain areas worth more points than others.
Here were the competition requirements:
- Students had to make their own drone (or “flying thing”)—they couldn’t buy something that came ready to fly out of a box.
- Students could only spend $200 on the flying thing (they were allowed to subtract the cost of controllers and electronic components, such as computer chips or computer boards, but no more on the drone itself). This provision along with Beagle Drones’ educational discount kept them within the budget.
- The drone had to be able to fly indoors without GPS since the competition took place inside a gymnasium where wifi was unreliable.
- Students were supposed to make all the decisions and do all the work and problem-solving on their own—parents couldn’t intervene to tell them which drone kit to buy, how to proceed, or solve technical problems that came up.
The BroBots team started their research on Google, looking at the different drone kits on the market.
Once they had a list of kits they entered them into a spreadsheet along with various pros and cons, which they explored together as a team—all of this, keep in mind, without any parents or other adults intervening to provide guidance.
The team soon decided to use the Beagle Drones kit for the competition based on its modularity, its relatively inexpensive price, its emphasis on safety, and the 30-day “accident forgiveness” warranty that comes free with the kit (they figured crashing was a strong possibility, given they had never flown before).
Dwight at Beagle Drones had several conference calls with the kids to answer their questions and make sure they knew everything they needed. He spent hours with them, and even gave them flying tips. I thought the way he interacted with them was great modeling, and really helped the BroBots get ready for the competition.
– Yvonne Esch
After getting the kit and building the drone, they still needed to figure out how to use it transport something in order to meet the requirements of the competition.
To do this, the team found a 3D printer file for a claw that could be attached to a drone. But the file was meant for a DJI drone, so they used Fusion360 to edit the file, then bought servos and Arduino-based chips on a coding-focused site called Adafruit to add to the claw.
The claw and legs made to attach to the BroBots drone
In addition to the claw, the team had to print legs for the drone so that it could land without the claw getting in the way. Finally, they had to figure out a way to attach the claw and legs to the drone, which they did using velcro and carabiners.
But how would they make the hook actually open and close from their controller, so it could pick something up and fly it to the correct spot on the grid?
To do this, the students combined two Arduino-based chips—one to control the servo motors connected to the claw and another with Bluetooth capabilities that could be controlled by a mobile app. They modified some code they found on Adafruit, and were able to program the mobile app to open and close the claw.
The finished BroBots drone
On the day of the competition, the students had to perform a play while one of their members flew the drone on its delivery missions to different parts of the grid.
The first flight got the maximum points possible—a ten!
In subsequent flights, the young pilot was intentionally flying close to the ground in order to be safety conscious—keep in mind that these drones were being flown in a crowded gymnasium—and skimmed the ground a few times.
Judges called these skims a landing, which meant the team was docked points, but we applaud the pilot for worrying about safety first.
University of San Francisco Drone Class
The Beagle Drones drone kit has also been used as part of a semester-long class on drones offered by Professor David Saah at the University of San Francisco.
The class is called Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Technologies. It covers everything sUAS—from how each individual part of a drone works, to building your own drone—that’s where Beagle Drones’ kit comes in—to how to fly, to actually studying for and passing the FAA’s Part 107 test. There’s even a section that requires students to complete a mapping mission.
Professor Saah doesn’t just use the drone kit as a quick way for students to make their own drones.
Instead, he slows down and looks carefully at each part included in the kit over the course of a four-day unit, using them to help students learn exactly how a drone works, one piece at a time.
After putting the drone together, students spend two to three days learning about the software required to fly the drone.
This section of the class, in which students carefully assemble their drone kit, learning about each component, makes up a significant part of students’ final grades:
An impressive outcome of the class, from our perspective, is that it has the potential to produce commercially certified drone pilots who know the ins and outs of how their UAS works. In a competitive market for drone jobs, this kind of training could really help pilots looking for work stand out from the crowd.
Now that we’ve looked at a few ways the drone kit is being used in STEM, it’s worth highlighting its versatility.
On the one hand, elementary school students have used it to build and retrofit a drone for a science competition, while on the other hand, a college professor is using it to help his undergrads learn how a drone works a technical level. That is just plain cool.
Love the idea of drones in STEM? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.