Drone competition at Freeport High is not just about science
It took a team of engineering students from Lenape Technical School two attempts to get their submersible drone to dive into a water tank and retrieve a wooden block.
Two attempts and lots of zip ties.
How many zip ties? According to one student, all of them.
The team, along with 11 others from six regional high schools, gathered Thursday at Freeport High School to participate in the sixth annual Sea, Air and Land, or SeAL, Challenge.
Teams of students tackled the challenge of building a drone to perform specific tasks under different environmental conditions. Students, given a budget of $500 per team, had to gather the materials, and with the help of counselors and teachers, design and assemble the drones, choosing from the three categories of land, air and sea.
Building it is just half the battle. Students must be able to demonstrate their drone can perform the task assigned to them by contest judges.
For the sea challenge, students designed a submersible robot to navigate in a 1,500-gallon water tank set up outside the school. In the land challenge, students used their robot to pick up numbered blocks and place them in corresponding boxes. The air challenge required students to build a drone capable of dropping things and equipped with a camera to identify objects.
All of the maneuvering was done by students who could see only what their drones could see, through integrated cameras and teamed pilots.
Participating students came from Freeport, Armstrong, Apollo-Ridge, Seneca Valley and Springdale high schools and Lenape.
Springdale High School senior John Skowronski participated in the air competition for a second year in a row, flying his team’s drone while another student handled payload delivery. Skowronski’s team took the air challenge title once again, completing the challenge using less than half their allotted 10 minutes.
Skowronski said his eight-member team worked on their six-armed drone, which they named Air Aid, for more than 100 hours.
“It was all trial and error,” he said. “It was a lot of testing to make sure all of the components work.”
The Sea, Air and Land Challenge was developed by the Penn State Electro-Optics Center and was funded by the Office of Naval Research.
One of the goals of the competition is to introduce students to careers in engineering, particularly in the Department of Defense.
According to judge and retired Freeport science teacher Don Orlowski, the focus on careers is what makes the event worthwhile.
“When you see students stepping out of the classroom and learning skills that will give them career choices in the future, I think that’s a great thing,” he said.
Susan Zingaro said it gives students a chance to work together toward a shared goal, and the STEM aspects of the program aren’t all that comes out of it.
“When we talk to students about what they learned, I’m always surprised to hear them focus on the soft skills that come out of this,” she said. “Things like communication, teamwork and problem solving. It’s not just the science aspect.”
Heather Simpson, an engineering teacher who coached the Lenape team (and provided all of the zip ties), said she saw those soft skills come into play.
“We had some trouble in trials, and that’s when you saw all of the emotions come out,” she said. “But they worked through it themselves and made it work.”
Aside from the engineering and communications lessons, Seneca Valley Senior Jeremy Juhn said his reason for participating was fairly simple.
“Robots are cool,” he said.