Students will fly to win

Published 9:20 pm Friday, March 9, 2018

Bradley Harrison, 15, and his team went to the King’s Fork High School gymnasium after school on Thursday to practice. Harrison had the video game-like controller in his hand and was ready to fly.

The recreational drone he flew in the gym is smaller than a shoe and much smaller than the 21-by-21-inch craft he and his cohorts will be flying this April. It buzzes like a hornet’s nest, with lights flashing red and blue. There was also another in the shape of the “Starship Enterprise” from “Star Trek.”

“It’s handling pretty well,” Harrison said as he fiddled with the controller’s analog sticks. “The only issue is when it’s going to drop down, I’ve got to turn up the throttle and then let go. It’s like rinse and repeat.”

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Harrison and his teammates are preparing for this year’s Sea, Air and Land Challenge that will be held at King’s Fork Middle School on April 28.

Inset, King’s Fork High School students John “Alex” Kmieciak, 17, Cody Saunders, 15, David Varela, 17, Bradley Harrison, 15, Ray Soto, 15, and Andrew Thompson, 17, are six of the students that will compete in the Sea, Air and Land Challenge at King’s Fork Middle School this April.

The middle school is one of seven different challenge locations this year between Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Virginia. The challenge is organized by Pennsylvania State University and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research and several companies.

Teams of high school students will develop different robots and engineering systems for challenges based on real-world scenarios they may face as engineers.

“The Sea Air Land Challenge was almost born out of necessity,” SEAL Challenge Coordinator Bill Kiser said in the SEAL Challenge Documentary produced by Ben Elder. “Like a lot of STEM challenges, one of the primary goals was to be able to excite kids about science and engineering for their future careers.

“The one novel idea we put into it was to involve the Department of Defense, in this case Sea Air Land, which models the operational environments that Navy SEALs work in.”

King’s Fork High School’s team will compete in this year’s air and land challenges.

The land challenge simulates a building collapse after an earthquake. Each team will design a remote-controlled robot that can move various objects to specific drop locations, acting like first responders delivering supplies to the critically injured.

The operator won’t be able to see the course during the run, however, and the course will change between runs. The students will use sensors or cameras to navigate and retrieve the objects.

“It’s about being the fastest team and the most accurate,” said STEM teacher Todd Gidley.

For the air challenge, teams will get into the heads of pilots operating unmanned aircraft to combat forest fires.

Each team will have a member that’s qualified to operate a multirotor drone worth at most $500. They will have 10 minutes to identify up to five “areas of interest” and five “drop zones” in the course.

“Some of these systems that these kids develop are very similar to the types of systems that Navy SEALs (and) United States Army Green Berets utilize in their missions,” Kiser said in the documentary.

Gidley emphasized what an opportunity the challenge is for his students to explore STEM-related career opportunities. He focuses on lessons that develop his students into capable workers in exciting fields.

In Tech Foundations and Tech Transfer class, Gidley will give his students 30 minutes to take a box of parts and make a working prototype based on their own intended uses. The three best teams are given commendations and bragging rights.

“I make it as real as possible,” he said. “If you’re employee of the month, you get the best parking spot. That’s reality, and all of this leads to what Suffolk employers want: competent workers with drives to learn.”

The King’s Fork High School team was put to the test early on when they began their robots and practice flights just a few weeks ago, according to junior David Varela, 17.

There are seven students on the team, and at least two or three of them can be found after school each day working. They had to put together a working Preliminary Design Report immediately after they began.

“It was pretty challenging at first, but once we got a plan together, it was pretty straightforward,” said sophomore Cody Saunders, 15.

Despite not knowing each other well at the start, the seven managed to quickly find a rhythm as a team.

“It was like, ‘I don’t know you, but we got to get to work,’” Varela said.