Kearsarge Middle School drone team headed to West Virginia competition

Keararge Regional Middle School student Oliver Pirone flies a drone through the course at a recent practice.

Keararge Regional Middle School student Oliver Pirone flies a drone through the course at a recent practice. JEREMY MARGOLIS—Monitor staff

JEREMY MARGOLIS

Monitor staff

Published: 04-16-2024 11:11 AM

For 60 seconds, a persistent buzz pervaded the Kearsarge Regional Middle School library on a recent Thursday afternoon as sixth grader Oliver Pirone piloted a drone through a green hoop, below a blue arch, and through two blue and black cubes, before landing it on a red and black bullseye as time expired.

The nearly perfect run earned Oliver 410 points, five points off his personal best.

“I just need to replicate that in the tournament,” he said.

That tournament – the Northeast Aerial Drone Championship in West Virginia on May 17 and 18 – will cap off a wildly successful first year for the Kearsarge Regional Middle School drone team. Next month, 12 students, two teachers, and a parent chaperone will travel by bus down for the competition following the qualification earlier this year of three four-student teams.

Funded through a $12,000 grant secured by digital learning specialist Laurie Prewandowski, the team started last October and has garnered more and more interest as the year has progressed. 

Drone flying teams have taken U.S. middle and high schools by storm in recent years. The competitions require skills in engineering, coding, data analysis, decision making, communication and teamwork.

In the REC Foundation-funded competitions that the Kearsarge team competes at, there are four components: a piloting skills mission, in which students accrue points through accomplishing various maneuvers; an autonomous flight mission, in which pilots program their drone before it is flown; a team challenge, in which two teams join forces to fly a course simultaneously; and a communications mission, in which judges interview team members and review a season-long journal they are required to keep.

Oliver’s favorite component is the piloting skills mission.

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He “flies so hard and so fast,” Prewandowski said.

Last Thursday, his Flying Ninja Nuggets teammate, sixth grader Hayden Bleier, focused instead on the autonomous flight mission, which requires programmers to code the flight path of their drone through the computer program Blocky for Robolink.

In his first attempt, Hayden’s drone careened into a hoop. Rather than changing the code immediately, he elected to check the battery first. 

“When the battery gets below 90%, it starts to act weird,” Hayden said. “In these situations, you wouldn’t change code.”

Sure enough, with a fully charged battery installed, the drone made it through the hoop unscathed. Still, Hayden tinkered with the code, which numbered dozens of lines, attempting to program a smoother flight.

Meanwhile, eighth grader Emily Detris, a member of the Flying Top Hats team, worked on her journal, which will also be scored in competition. Teams are required to track data from practices and explain the decisions they make. At competitions earlier in the year, the team won awards in this category.

Outside of practice, the team is working to raise $2,000 more for its West Virginia trip, which will cost $18,000, Prewandowski said.

The team members heading to West Virginia are Ryan Geraghty, Jake Desjardins, Gabe Wakeman, and Owen Houle of the Delta Flyers team; Oliver Pirone, Grayson Rettig, Will Martin and Hayden Bleier of the Flying Ninja Nuggets team; and Lily-Ann LePenven, Jade LeBoeuf, Emily Detris and Amelia Clark of the Flying Top Hats team.