Building drones and engineering solutions with Eagle Community School

13 May 2024

Fresh Eyes on Ice graduate students Sarah Clement and Matthew Scragg joined Dr. Helena Buurman and Steve Springer from the Alaska Satellite Facility and Kelly Kealy from Goldstream Group for drone building, flying, and engineering challenges with the ten students of Eagle Community School May 8-9, 2024. The workshop was part of an ongoing collaboration between Fresh Eyes on Ice and the Alaska Satellite Facility to explore with students how remote sensing (via drones and satellite imagery) can aid in freshwater ice monitoring.  

After a day-long weather delay in Fairbanks on May 7, we arrived in Eagle bright and early the next morning, determined to make the most of our shortened time with the students. We dove right into building miniature drones, and were practicing flying in the school gym before lunch! The students explored satellite imagery of Eagle and other communities around Alaska from the 2023-24 winter season and tried to match the satellite images to ground or drone-based photo observations. It was a challenging activity, and highlighted the importance of having in situ observations to help interpret satellite images!

Ten students sit in two table groups in a classroom, building toy drones. They receive instructions from a blonde woman scientist standing at the front of the classroom, holding up a drone for demonstration.

Eagle Community School students assemble their drones, led by Dr. Helena. Photo credit: Sarah Clement

The students were total pros flying their drones by the end of the school day, so our team set up obstacle courses to challenge them during Family Night. The students came back to the school Wednesday evening with their families and several school volunteers for dinner and the three obstacle courses: “A Whole Lotta Hoopla,” “Tunnel Vision,” and “Clownin’ Around.” The hardest features included flying the drone through a rolled up foam pad (in “Tunnel Vision”) and knocking a softball off a cone (“Clownin’ Around”). By the end of the night, several students had successfully completed all three courses! 

three photos side by side of three different drone obstacle courses made from school P.E. equipment. The titles of the obstacle courses are "A whole lotta hoopla," "Tunnel vision," and "Clownin' around."

The three obstacle courses students flew their drones through during Family Night. Photo credit: Sarah Clement

A student wearing a black sweatshirt and army green pants flys a drone through an obstacle course in a school gym. She is attempting to land her drone on a frisbee propped on top of a box jump.

Grace carefully navigates her drone towards the final obstacle in Tunnel Vision: the frisbee landing pad. Photo credit: Steve Springer

Scientist Matt issued the students with a challenge on Thursday morning: they needed to engineer a payload attachment system for their mini drones to carry “tools” (3-5 packing peanuts) across the “river” (gym) to help their buddies, stranded on the other side. The students had an array of craft materials to get the job done, designing, testing and iterating their system until they felt it was perfect. Each student demonstrated their final design in a final test across the gym. No two designs were the same, and many made it across the “river”! 

Nine toy drones sit on a school gym floor. Each drone has a different payload system attached, created by the students of Eagle Community School

The students' drones with their payload systems attached. Photo credit: Helena Buurman

The toy drones we build and use for most of the workshop are small and very difficult to fly - flying a real drone is much smoother by comparison! Before lunch, Dr. Helena brought out three DJI mini 3 drones to give the students some practice flying actual drones. The students teamed up to go through their pre-flight checklists to ensure the drones were safe and ready to fly (finding a few broken propellers in the process!), and practiced flying the drones around the gym to take pictures. We laid out letters on “icebergs” around the gym that the students had to take pictures of and unscramble the phrase (“Helena rules!”). 

Two students stand with their backs to the camera in a school gym. One student is flying a DJI mini 3 drone while the second student acts as the observer.

Students practice flying the DJI mini 3 drones. Photo credit: Helena Buurman

We have often taken the opportunity to collect ice thickness measurements for Fresh Eyes on Ice with the students during these workshops, and to use the field trip outside as a chance to practice flying drones to monitor the ice. The ice went out at Eagle on May 6 this year, just before we arrived! Instead of monitoring the ice, the students and principal Kristy Robbins took our team on a field trip around Eagle Thursday afternoon. Our favorite stops included the viewpoint from which the students take a group photo of themselves with the river in the background every week during the winter, and the Fresh Eyes on Ice camera upriver from town! 

We had a great time visiting the students at Eagle Community School, and can’t wait to continue working with them in winters to come!

Students of Eagle Community School, the principal Kristy Robbins, and the Fresh Eyes on Ice and Alaska Satellite Facility team stand in front of Eagle Community School

Photo credit: Steve Springer