- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - More than footballs were flying at a recent Westside Warriors practice.

Jeff Ingraham pushed a lever on a radio controller, and a white DJI Phantom drone whined and lifted off the running track.

A few more pushes and pulls, and the drone sailed to a spot high above the turf, hovering still as a rock, its high-definition camera recording the action below.

The Omaha World-Herald reports (http://bit.ly/1YhBTuL ) that one day soon, drones like this will probably swoop into your kids’ school. If they aren’t there already.

The compact, remote-controlled aircraft are providing marching band directors and football coaches with a bird’s-eye view of formations.

In science class, students write programs to steer miniature drones through obstacle courses.

School officials capture dramatic, Hollywood-style videos to show off their facilities and promote their districts.

Ingraham is a technology specialist with Educational Service Unit 3, a political subdivision that provides technology support to 18 eastern Nebraska school districts.

The organization bought 25 drones, including the Phantom, as part of its mission to seek out emerging technologies that might be important to schools in the future, he said.

“It just seemed to be an incredibly compelling way of engaging students, specifically in STEM concepts - science, technology, engineering, math - that is so important for the future of our nation,” Ingraham said.

The drones cost about $3,500 in all. They vary in size and capabilities. But they all reflect the convergence of whiz-bang technologies: powerful, miniature motors; long-lasting, lightweight batteries; global positioning and infrared guidance systems; digital cameras; and easy programming.

Ingraham takes them, upon request, to schools in the member districts, including Bellevue, Elkhorn, Douglas County West, Millard, Gretna, Papillion-La Vista, Ralston, Springfield Platteview and Westside.

The ESU serves 77,000 students, making it the largest in Nebraska.

The DJI Phantom, costing about $1,000, is the biggest and most expensive aircraft in Ingraham’s squadron. It’s 14 inches across, weighs over 2 pounds and carries on its belly a GoPro camera. Its four blades emit a loud whine and look like they could chop a salad, or a finger, in nothing flat.

With global positioning capability, the drone can sit magically in the air like it’s on a string. When the battery runs low, it automatically returns to the spot where it took off. Its videos, shot in high definition, are clear and smooth.

Ingraham can aim the camera remotely, but he can’t see what the camera sees. With this model, there’s no screen on the controller to view through the drone’s lens. So it’s a guess as to what is captured on video. But he and Robbie Jensen, another ESU technology specialist, have gotten pretty good at aiming it. The camera is mounted on a gimbal, a pivoting support that keeps it horizontal.

At the Westside football practice, Ingraham made several flights with the Phantom. Players craned their necks to watch it. At one point, a hawk floated over the field, and Ingraham gave it a wide berth. Birds sometimes attack the drones and send them crashing, he said.

Ingraham later provided the videos to the coach. The videos resemble those overhead Xs and Os shots that NFL quarterbacks are always examining on the sideline.

Ingraham said the Westside coach was impressed.

“He said it was very helpful,” he said. “They’re planning to purchase one now. … From the press box, you don’t get that same perspective of who did what when.”

Some schools and districts have purchased their own drones over the past couple of years as costs have come down and availability has increased.

Nathan LeFeber, director of bands at Kearney High School, has used drone footage to refine his marching band show.

“It allowed us to fix a few things because I could see it from a different perspective,” LeFeber said.

For instance, the video revealed a problem with a circle formation.

“As soon as we saw it from way up high, I could see one side of the circle was bulging out,” he said.

The Kearney drone, obtained through a grant, also has been used to take videos documenting the progress on construction of a new high school, he said.

Bennington High School band director Rob Hartung said he’s going to use a drone, also bought through a grant, to record practice once a week.

The drone gives the same perspective as if he had a tower on the field, but it’s safer.

“Towers present liability issues. We don’t have a tower at my practice site. And if I did have a tower, it probably wouldn’t be that tall. I’ve got a far better perspective for viewing the progress of the show by using the drone. Then I know what things I need to focus on for the next week, with the footwork, body placement, things like that.”

Hartung said he also will use the drone to record video of bands attending the school’s band festival Oct. 10.

“They’re going to get a video that’s extremely useful to them,” he said.

Bennington cross country practices also have been recorded.

Flying the big drones indoors is a challenge. The GPS doesn’t work. That’s where Ingraham turns to the much smaller Parrot Spider MiniDrones.

These are the latest additions to the ESU’s inventory. With spoked wheels serving as bumpers at either end, they vaguely resemble the TIE fighters flown by the dark side in “Star Wars.” There’s 10 of them. Each weigh about 2 ounces and costs about $75.

Ingraham takes these durable units into classrooms, where kids can program them to run obstacle courses. The drones can be controlled from iPads and tablets, so even the youngest kids can fly them, he said.

Students instruct the drones to fly through hoops and land in boxes.

He recently took them to Whitetail Creek Elementary School in Gretna Public Schools.

Paul Clark, technology specialist at the school, said that the day before, the fifth-graders had been learning decimals in math class, he said.

“And you say, ‘When am I ever really going to use this?’ when you’re in fifth grade, besides for dollars and cents,” Clark said.

“But some of them had to turn the drones on and let them fly for 2.3 seconds to get it to go exactly where they wanted to go,” he said. “It was really kind of fun because they had a chance to actually apply something they learned in class to a real-world situation.”

When programming drones, kids must be aware of movement along three dimensions: the x, y and z axes, he said.

In a couple of weeks, fourth-graders will launch air rockets on the playground. He will use a drone to take an aerial picture of where all the rockets have landed.

“I’ll take that picture and put it into Google Earth, and the kids can measure how far their rockets went,” he said.

Whitetail has a little TV studio, and once in a while students work some drone footage into the broadcast, he said.

Drone footage from above the school has revealed how quickly the neighborhood is filling in with houses, he said.

In Omaha Public Schools, which is not part of ESU 3, a science class at Beveridge Magnet Middle School used a drone to capture video of a weather-balloon launch.

Ingraham said a variety of mathematical concepts are involved in drone flight - turning, banking and just keeping it in the air - giving teachers lots to work with in class.

On top of that are the radio and infrared signaling and computer programming, he said. The software system works in meters, so kids learn about the metric system, he said.

The devices, ultimately, offer a captivating mix of technology and flight, with appeal to the “selfie generation,” he said.

“I think man has always been fascinated by flight, whether it was birds or Orville and Wilbur when they took off in North Carolina,” he said.

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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