Kids in West Baltimore spend spring break at drone camp

From drones, West Baltimore students get birds eye view of the neighborhood

Ten-year-old Eric Morris had already sent a 4-inch drone into the air in a West Baltimore park Monday morning when instructor Austin Brown asked the students if anyone wanted to take the controls of a much larger aircraft.

Eric wasted no time. His hand shot into the air.

"Me!"

The other students and teachers from the local drone company Global Air Media stepped back as Brown handed Eric the remote control. With a whine, the four-rotor Syma X5 bobbed up into the air.

Eric is one of about 10 students spending the week at a drone camp at the Penn-North Kids Safe Zone. The organizers hope that working with the remotely controlled quadcopters will help the children learn about science and technology and inspire them to consider a career in engineering.

Richard May, the chairman of Innovation Village, a sponsor of the program, said getting students familiar with the latest technology is especially important in areas such as West Baltimore, where people can't always keep up with innovation in the wider economy.

"These kids will get the opportunity to learn the skills for the jobs of the future," May said.

If all goes well, the group hopes to back similar camps throughout the summer vacation.

Drone companies have struggled to find their footing as the Federal Aviation Administration works out rules for how their craft can be safely flown in America's already crowded skies. But that should be sorted out by the time the students at the drone camp are grown.

The city government-backed Innovation Village launched this year to spur job growth and entrepreneurship in West Baltimore, part of revitalization efforts after the violent protests that rocked the area after the death of Freddie Gray last year.

Global Air Media's Phylicia Porter said she hopes the spring break camp will help show children that Baltimore is a viable place for them to start a high-tech business after high school or college.

"We need to make it worthwhile for them to come home," she said.

The drone camp began Monday morning with doughnuts for breakfast. The students huddled around teacher Abraham Attenoukon's laptop to watch a video showing the different types of jobs drones can do.

Akcire Alston, 12, has already decided she'd like to be a scientist when she grows up. She stepped confidently up to a white board to write out the kinds of engineers needed to get a drone working.

Akcire and the other students were stumped when Attenoukon posed a deceptively simple question: "What is air?"

"It's like the stuff that's in the air," Akcire said uncertainly.

Attenoukon described some of the forces involved in flight: lift, thrust and drag. He showed the students the rotors off a drone on the table in front of them and pointed out how their shape helps the aircraft fly.

Bad weather threatened to keep the students indoors Monday, but around 11 a.m. they piled out of the Kids Safe Zone building on North Carey Street into bright sunshine.

Eric, decked out in a new T-shirt with the words "drone pilot" written on the back, carried the miniature drone across the street to a park, while the teachers followed with the bigger ones.

The students got a lesson in drone safety — don't fly over people, don't fly too high, don't fly when the battery is low — and soon the air was filled with the sound of buzzing rotors.

Despite the briefing, there were a few problems.

Eric quickly flew his small drone into a chain-link fence around a basketball court. The X5 had a habit of landing upside down. One drone lost contact with the controls and crashed. Part of an obstacle course fell victim to a rotor blade.

But mostly the drones hovered high above as the children giggled with excitement. Curious passers-by showed up to the park to take a look.

One man asked where he could buy his own drone.

The two largest aircraft were equipped with on-board cameras that connected to the pilots' phones, astonishing the students with a view of the neighborhood around them.

"It was cool," Akcire said after her turn at the controls. "It was so high."

From the ground a line of buildings blocked the view from the park. But Akcire said she got a different perspective from up in the air.

"You can see downtown Baltimore if you go right there," she said.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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