It will also look at how this technology has transformed our day-to-day lives. Many people associate the word ‘drones’ with the military or the police force.  Indeed, we often hear reports of ‘drone strikes’ around the world, or governments conducting ‘drone surveillence’ over war-torn countries, or ‘drone monitoring’ when it comes to police programs. 

But over the last few years, educators have begun to harness the power of drones to engage students and to bring lessons to life in the modern classroom. There’s no doubt that we are at the very beginning of the drone era, and the potential to use these gadgets in education has not yet been fully realised.

When it comes to using drones, teachers are truly spoiled for choice. Not only can they have students build their own from scratch, but they can also encourage students to utilise skills in robotics, mathematics, electronics, chemistry, coding and programming when doing so.

As drones increasingly become cheaper and more accessible, schools are able to purchase them with ease. But before educators race to the shops to stock up, it really does pay to be informed. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority outlines several regulations that all individuals must adhere to when flying these aircrafts. Educators should visit for more information. 

In this feature, we explore some of these issues, speaking with New South Wales teacher Brett Salakas about how his students are using drones in the classroom and why he believes many educators are breaking the law when it comes to the CASA regulations.

We also sit down with Canberra educator Matthew Purcell to talk about how his school spent a $10,000 grant on establishing their drones programme and the challenges they faced when implementing it. 

Drones capturing students’ attention

It’s clear that drones certainly have a ‘wow factor’ but how do you actually use them in a school setting? This is a question Brett Salakas has been asking himself for the last 12 months.

It all sprung from a chance meeting at the EduTECH International Congress and Expo in Brisbane last year, when the St Kevin’s Primary School teacher found himself sitting down with Larry Johnson, the founder of the Horizon Project, which produces the acclaimed series of Horizon Reports that are used by well over a million educators.

Salakas quizzed Johnson about whether any surprises would feature in the upcoming Horizon Report, and Johnson mentioned the use of drones. 

“Now, that just hit me for six a little bit,” Salakas tells TechnologyEd. 

“I was like ‘wow, OK, drones, that’s really cool but how do you actually do that in a school setting? What does that look like? What is that like?’”

When Salakas returned to his Sydney school, he began exploring the pedagogy behind the use of drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) as they are otherwise known, while connecting with other educators already using them in their classrooms.

Using his #aussieED network – a weekly professional development chat he founded that allows all teachers, leaders and administrators to discuss the real issues that affect what happens in classrooms everywhere – Salakas organised some Google Hangouts and set out on this learning journey. 

“I started the blogging about it and I was getting a lot of feedback about those blogs so I thought about all the different possibilities of how you could use drones effectively. And one was about inspiration and doing something that created a real buzz in the classroom,” Salakas shares.

He recalls a particular creative writing lesson where he brought a Lego man into class and had his Year 6 students create a complex character for the man, before Salakas sat him on a drone and flew him away, never to be seen again. He also uses the drones to develop his students’ coding skills. 

“I started looking at coding and especially with the Digital Technologies curriculum coming, teachers have got to get used to the idea that coding is one of the things we’re going to have to add to our repertoire,” he shares.

“Now there’s a couple of different ways to do that and one is to outsource that and spends loads and loads of money to get other companies in to teach coding. Or, you can start looking at ‘well, what can we do ourselves, how can we upskill ourselves?’”

Salakas began by purchasing the Rolling Spider drone, a model produced by Parrot MiniDrones  – a deliberate choice given the legal requirements that need to be adhered to when using drones in the classroom. 

Salakas says this is one area that teachers need to be particularly careful about, given the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has some strict regulations when it comes to flying these aircrafts. 

“A lot of teachers are actually breaking those CASA regulations, so you have to be really smart about how you are using drones, especially if you’re going to advertise the fact that you’re doing them,” Salakas shares.

“I was looking at ‘legally – how can I do this? How can I do this the right way?’ So we got an indoor drone and that’s one of the big things – to have an indoor drone.”

Salakas set up an indoor obstacle course with the goal of having students complete drone races. They used an app to write lines of code, before connecting their iPads via Bluetooth to the drone and attempting to navigate the course. 

When all students failed the first time, Salakas says they returned to the drawing board, rewriting the code and trying again. 

“So they had to go over that process over and over again until they got the appropriate line of code that could get them through the obstacle course,” he shares.

“We just made like a round robin and then a bit of a knock out competition. I had them in separate groups, the kids were in groups of twos or threes and then they each had a bit of a practice, so they could skill up using the app and using coding. 

“They knew how to use the equipment and then they could use their mathematical knowledge and computational thinking to then solve how they could get their drone to fly around the obstacle course.” 

Throughout this activity, Salakas was conscious that all students adhere to the CASA guidelines, which includes the fact you can’t fly a drone outside within 30 metres of a building or a vehicle.

“For most schools, unless you have a large oval, that automatically discounts all of that straight away,” he shares. 

“If you’re lucky enough to have a large enough oval, then you’ve got that ability. If you’re near a park or public land, or if a school goes down to the local park, you can’t fly your drone at the local park either because there’s privacy rules about that as well. You can’t fly your drone over 150 metres high because you can’t lose line of sight unless you have accreditation. So at this point, I don’t know how many teachers would be licenced to break those regulations.”

Despite this, many of these laws, according to Salakas, were made before drones became so common and cheap to buy, meaning they have quickly become outdated. 

“I saw a drone at Aldi (Supermarket) the other day. You can get them anywhere, so the laws and the regulations haven’t kept up with the advancing technology and the price drop in the technology,” he adds.

After receiving lots of positive feedback and encouragement from educators about his use of drones in the classroom, Salakas decided to take it one step further. He launched an international competition, #DronesinEd, with the aim of encouraging teachers to start exploring drones with their students. 

“What I did find is that as exciting as drones were, teachers weren’t exactly sure of the place they sat in the curriculum … realistically the easiest place for them to go in is teaching the curriculum in a primary school setting,” he shares.

“However, through the #DronesinEd competition, we had teachers from the UK and the US and Australia – it was open to the world – showcase and share ideas of how they used drones in their classroom. 

“There was a school … they actually used a laser cutter and prototyped their own balsa wood drone and then had the kids 3D print their own drone as part of their project-based learning task. 

“And then we had schools in New Zealand, a primary school in New Zealand had a crash drone and then did it as a whole writing task, ‘where did this drone come from’ and from K-6, they had a whole investigation for the day.

“I think a lot of people are using it in very different methods. The most common is to facilitate the teaching of coding. It seems to be where the first step is but long term, either using coding or using the project-based learning concept is the way in which people will get the most benefit out of the drones.”

So what is it exactly that makes the use of drones so appealing to students? 

Salakas says when you’re talking about technology, everything is virtual, making it a really abstract concept for students to grasp. 

“You work in an abstract world, you type something, you make something and it has a digital effect.  Whereas using a drone has a visual and physical impact on what you’re doing, so you are blurring the line between the virtual digital world, and the tangible real world. I think that is a winning combination and that’s what takes it to the next level.  

“Kids can physically feel, touch and see the impact of what they’re doing.” 

Code cadets ahead of the pack

Two years ago most educators wouldn’t have ever heard of drones being used in education, but Canberra Grammar School were already using them with gusto. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the New South Wales Association of Independent Schools, the school introduced drone programming into its Years 7 and 8 Code Cadets programme along with its Years 9 and 10 IT courses, within the school academic curriculum. Here, we speak with the school’s head of Digital Innovation, Matthew Purcell, about the success of the programme and the challenges they faced along the way.

Your school successfully applied for a $10,000 grant to introduce drones in the classroom. Can you tell me more about it?

In 2014 we applied for a grant from the New South Wales Association of Independent Schools. They have STEM grants – so basically grants to encourage schools to undertake projects that encourage the uptake of STEM-based subjects within schools. So we put in a proposal to introduce drone programming into our IT courses and we were successful. So last year in 2015, we ran a pilot project which involved the introduction of drone programming into our courses.

We selected to use the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Quadcopters, they’re quite inexpensive (about $300 each) and quite robust quads. There’s also quite a bit of support for them out in the world, so there’s a lot of open sourced projects that allow you to control the drone via writing JavaScript code and that really worked 
well for us. Our Year 9 course is all about web development and our students learn JavaScript, so it wasn’t too much of a leap to take what they’ve learned through their web programming and apply it a bit more toward actually programming those real time devices. 

Where did you learn about how to best use drones in the classroom?

They are very new to education and when we applied for the grant, that was just before drones became a really big thing – so there wasn’t too much available. We mostly developed it ourselves and we open sourced a lot of it as well for other schools to use – part of the requirements of our STEM grant was we published the outcomes of our programme. So we developed a lot of the things   ourselves, we learned a lot of lessons too about things I would certainly do differently if I were to do it again. We had a few successes and we had a lot of failures as well.

Can you talk me through some of those challenges you faced?

When we initially put forward the grant proposal, we had ideas – we could get a class and maybe 10 drones flying simultaneously and we thought we’d use that on an oval or something like that. Then when we started doing this, we ran it on a very small scale first. 
It was six very trusted students who are very smart and could generally troubleshoot problems themselves – just to see how it would go. Even with just six students and five or six drones, it was still very hard to manage just because you really do as a teacher need to keep your eye on where these things are at all times. 

Even if you have the best intentions, sometimes they do just go the wrong way and run into people or run into things. So it’s very, very hard to keep your eye on all of these things all the time, so that was one challenge. Then we also ran into a lot of technical challenges. So the fact that when we had a lot of drones operating in a small space, we could only run about three or four simultaneously before the control signal started to interfere with various drones, we couldn’t actually see the drones on our computers because the wireless network was being so interfered with, with the other drones flying around. We were having issues with the range of the drones. Sometimes the max range we would get would be 10 metres when we had a lot of them flying. 

The trial ran last year, are you using drones at all this year?

We still do use them but not so much as part of our curriculum. Last year, I think it worked OK, but not to the reliability degree that I would stake doing an entire unit on it. Last year, we did waste a huge amount of time just trying to get them reliably working, we have not been successful in doing it and I think that’s because we are using reasonably immature technology. The one thing I would do, if I do it again, is rather than buying a lot of cheaper drones, I’d buy fewer, more expensive and more advanced drones that would be reliable. 

What did the students learn in their drone programming course?

Firstly, we did the manual flight of the drones, so the students get an idea of how the flight dynamics work for them,  and then we went into more pattern flying. We laid out a course and the students had to measure the course and determine how fast the drone would go with the coded instructions. That introduced other interesting factors like calculating if there was wind on the day, what the potential wind resistance would be, because on a very windy day, you can hammer the drone forward as hard as you like but it might be pushed backwards because the wind is pushing it. 

How did you go adhering to the strict regulations in place when using drones?

Last year I did my UAV Controller Certificate which is essentially a pilot’s licence for UAVs and it’s issued by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. It’s a five-day course that’s a fairly lengthy process to go through that was really well worth it. It gave me an overview firstly on the legal aspects I wasn’t aware of before I did the course, but also just about the mechanics of how these things work and considerations you have to make when flying them, particularly just safety considerations that I didn’t think of.

Do you have any advice for educators who are thinking of introducing drones into their classrooms?

My key bit of advice for teachers is to get one drone, probably the one you’re going to use in the class, and then just get a lot of experience using it yourself in all sorts of different conditions. Get experience using it in calm conditions, in windy conditions, things like that – so you’re totally familiar with how it works so you’re an expert on it. When you give these things to a student, particularly if it’s one of the more advanced drones like the DJI Phantom, they are quite dangerous. You really just need to understand how they work yourself in order to have an appreciation of the safety aspects and how it flies and what you can and shouldn’t allow the students to do with it.