tech Drone school confidential: Eric King (left) and Lynn Fenstermaker are educating kids about the potential of unmanned aircraft.
Generation drone Unmanned aircraft systems are here. Proponents like Lynn Fenstermaker are making sure Nevada and its kids are ready for a high-flying future B y H e i d i K ys e r
he cacophony of a school assembly follows the first- and second-graders out of the multipurpose room, back to their homerooms at Sandy Searles Miller Elementary School. A handful of older students stays behind; they sit cross-legged in a semi-circle facing Lynn Fenstermaker, a Desert Research Institute scientist seated on the stage where she’d just given a schoolwide presentation about unmanned aircraft systems, her preferred term for drones. These select fifth-graders
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earned special Q&A time with Fenstermaker by opting to do their capstone projects on subjects in which she has expertise. Only one student asks a question — “What are drones made of?” — that could qualify as basic. Others wonder whether an unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, can be powered by solar energy, how high-frequency radar affects its signal and what impact the technology is having on climate change research. Dominic Sanchez, who wants to be a
robotics inventor when he grows up, engages Fenstermaker in a conversation about the software that runs the cameras and video recorders mounted on DRI’s 5-foot-long, 15-pound radio-controlled helicopter, which sits nearby on the stage. An uneducated bystander might be shocked at the kids’ familiarity with a technology most Las Vegans have only recently begun to read about in the news. But Fenstermaker, a mild-mannered Pennsylvania native with short brown hair, takes it in stride. She’s done dozens of similar presentations as part of DRI’s community outreach, and she participated in a UNLV mentoring program for local girls until funding cuts put an end to it. So she knows how comfortable kids are with technology, especially kids like these, who attend a STEM-focused magnet school. “Typically, as technology advances, it goes from slow and expensive to fast and more affordable,” she says, answering a question about what developers have learned about drones over time. “Prototypes are an important part of this process. If you go on YouTube and look up the X-47B, you’ll see one of the Navy’s first models.” The kids can see thousands of videos about drones on the Internet, or even buy one there. Fenstermaker notes that Amazon sells quad-copters; that’s the small, four-rotor model often encircled by a bumper-band to prevent collisions. It’s the type Sandy Miller got for its students’ experimentation. With Nevada vying to be a major player in the drone industry, educational institutions are ramping up to prepare the future developers and technicians who will populate labs and factories; hence, Fenstermaker’s presentations. Although drones brought her and the kids together today, a gap separates where she is now and where they’ll be
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