SANDPOINT — Drone technology has gained popularity across a number of industries over the years, used in everything from aerospace and agriculture, to emergency services and environmental monitoring.
In its mission to prepare local students for a broad range of careers in the aerospace industry, the North Idaho High School Aerospace Program added the unmanned aerial vehicles to the list of opportunities for the teens this year.
“It’s awesome,” Sandpoint High School sophomore Gemma Howard said of the NIHSA program. “It has helped me decide my career … I want to be a pilot.”
The drones were implemented this year in NIHSA’s career pathways ground school class, taught at SHS by NIHSA’s pilot training and academic instructor Ken Larson at SHS. The class has 15 students who didn’t simply learn to fly drones this semester. When they got the three Parallax ELEV-8 Quadcopters, they arrived in a lot of small pieces.
“They had to assemble it and do all the wiring,” said Larson, adding that the teens had to install the software as well.
The drones are finally ready to fly this week after 10 to 12 class periods of preparation. Since this year’s students built and programmed the drones, Larson said the plan is to add to the technology each year. Next year, he said, they will add cameras and software upgrades for autonomous flight.
Throughout the semester, there has also been several guest speakers in the class. SHS senior Nicholas Krames said it has been helpful for him because many of the guests have been engineers. Krames said he plans to study electrical engineering before going into the Navy with the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot.
A regular guest of the class is Jeffrey Williams, a Quest Aircraft engineer and president of Empire Unmanned, a division of Empire Airlines in Hayden. Williams volunteers every Friday to help the students out with the drones.
“He has donated a lot of time and effort to this,” Larson said. “To have somebody with his skill is absolutely phenomenal.”
NIHSA relies on volunteers, donations and grants to keep the program going year after year. At $800 each, for example, the drones were purchased through grants from the Idaho Community Foundation and the Sandpoint Community Assistance League. CAL has helped the program out every year, which Larson said has been “really great.”
In addition to the ground school, NIHSA has an ACES Aviation Workshop, where students can get hands-on experience building and rebuilding planes, as well as a flight school where they can earn their sport or private pilot’s license.
There are 14 area students attending the ACES program regularly on Saturdays, Larson said, and six who are in flight training, though some of those numbers are crossovers, such as Howard, who is in the ground school and flight training.
In the ACES program, which is held in a hangar at Sandpoint Airport, some of the students are currently putting a new engine in a 1942 Taylorcraft. Another team of students are doing fabric work on another 1942 plane, and a third team is working on an RV-6 aircraft that was recently donated to the program, including an engine replacement and wing modification. The group is purchasing a used engine for the RV-6 with a grant from CAL.
As Williams volunteers to help with the drones, there are three mentors who volunteer in the ACES program. The mentors are Glenn Smith, an FAA licensed mechanic and head mentor for the program; Bob DelValle, an instructor pilot who helps with a lot of the fabric work; and Tom Dean, a retired aeronautical engineer who drove to Las Vegas to pick up the donated plane and haul it back to Sandpoint.
Larson said one of the biggest needs of the group right now is another mentor with plane-building skills who can help out with the different projects in the ACES program.
To celebrate all of the people, as well as the student achievements, NIHSA is hosting an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the airport hangar, 1100 Airport Way, Sandpoint.
Everyone is invited to meet the students, as well as see the training airplanes and the projects the students are working on. Free hot dogs will be served at noon, and a drone demonstration will begin at 1 p.m.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.