Baily Fair, a rising seventh grader, had completed most of her training to pilot small aircraft during a weekend workshop in downtown Raleigh, and she was using a throttle with two colorful joysticks to guide a tiny helicopter drone onto a small square landing pad.
The lightweight drone, less than a foot in length, is sensitive to wind drafts that can throw it off course. The overhead air-conditioning unit made the helicopter landing all the more challenging for Baily, a blond-haired wisp of a kid in skinny jeans who attends Kestrel Heights, a private school in West Durham.
On Sunday and the day before, Baily was among a group of students who participated in a remote aircraft workshop sponsored by ArtSpace. She used the left stick of the throttle to move the dronecraft up and down, and the right stick to move it forward and backward.
It took her about a minute to land the tiny aircraft a few feet in front of the pad.
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“It was kind of hard,” Baily said. “The draft kept pulling it back. Because of the wind it kind of turned to where you don’t want it to land.”
The throttle she used to control the movement of the delicate dronecraft was also very sensitive, especially in a room that included an obstacle course fashioned out of wooden dowels with rectangular wooden bases.
Baily was one of 12 people learning how to pilot small drones and to build quadcopters, powered by four rotors, from the ground up.
The workshop instructor, Lile Stephens, is an artist in residence at ArtSpace. Stephens volunteers at the Kramden Institute in Durham’s Research Triangle Park, a non-profit that provides technology tools and training to bridge the digital divide for Triangle residents who may not have immediate access to new technology.
The Kramden Institute has donated more than 19,000 computers to honor roll students in 71 of the state’s 100 counties.
The institute wants to help students succeed by teaching them critical computer, software and Internet skills. The children who live in communities with limited technological access are the ones who clean the old computers, repair them, install the software, test the devices and teach their peers how to use them.
“Part of the mission is ‘don’t just be digital media consumers, but learn how to create the new technology,’” said Stephens, a 34-year-old native of Arkansas who earned a master of fine arts degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Baily earned a scholarship for the drone-building workshop after she took classes in video game development at Kramden.
“They contacted my mom about the drone class,” she said. “I thought it would be cool to do.”
“Cool” is not a word middle-schoolers typically associate with a class and classmates that includes adults and even retirees. But the two-day workshop was evenly divided, with about half the students teenagers and the other half adults. They included Matt Lavoie, a native of New Hampshire and software engineer who has lived in Raleigh for the past 20 years, and Howard Koslow of Durham, who is a recently retired software developer.
Koslow said anyone can purchase a tiny drone for like “ a hundred and fifty bucks,” but that workshops like the one hosted by ArtSpace helps people get comfortable with the devices.
“We help each other out,” said Koslow.
Part of the weekend training included discussions about the ethical implications of remote flight and surveillance.
“The general impression is that it’s not really good because of the association with the military,” Koslow said. “But is can also help farmers with their crops and help law enforcement find people. Privacy issues are really at the forefront of the discussion, too.”
One of Baily’s classmates at Kestrel Heights, Ian Young, also a rising seventh grader, spent Sunday trying to get better at guiding the drone.
“I like doing it just for fun,” said the cheerful, sandy-haired youngster. “Maybe I can learn a little more and freak my sister out with it.”