Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or flying robot drones are aircraft that are operated without an onboard pilot. While the initial application of drones was limited to defence and reconnaissance missions for gathering military intelligence or carrying out activities considered too risky for human-crewed missions in earlier times, the scenario has drastically changed due to advancements in robotic research.

As technology advances, flying robot drones have been applied to several other fields. The costs of drones have decreased, and their application has expanded to recreation and research.

Flying robots can collect vast amounts of data in various research areas through their ability to generate high-resolution imagery. They, therefore, can be applied to education.

Some ways in which drones can be applied to education for kids include:

1. Kids develop a capstone project with flying robots and drones
2. They study a module on UAVs in the course
3. An entire course on drones

A study has found that UAV projects help improve students’ teamwork, critical thinking and communication skills and problem-solving.

These skills can be applied in various STEM disciplines like remote sensing, agriculture, engineering, physics, forestry, wildlife biology, and geography.

Application in Various Fields

Understanding the broad applications of drones or flying robots can help us understand the breadth of their use in STEM education. Various applications mean STEM educators can select from different topics to give students an accompanying drone exercise.

Flying robots can capture accurate colour pictures with very high resolution as they fly at lower elevation levels. They are much better at doing the job when compared to satellites orbiting the earth, which are too distant to give clear pictures. They can be fitted with thermal and hyperspectral sensors. Besides, images from drones can be updated more quickly.

Various landscapes and environments can be examined, making UAVs flexible teaching tools.

Remote sensing technology is used in vegetation monitoring instead of field sampling measurements. UAVs or flying robots can be used to measure the crops’ height and assess their health and growth. They can be used for measuring the biomass of grasslands density of forest canopy.

The thermal sensors on drones can assess water stress in crops and orchards. UAVs can also describe tree age, diameter and height, helping understand forest types and tree mortality rates.

Other than agriculture, soil erosion is another application area in the STEM field for flying robot UAVs. The extent of soil erosion can be estimated with UAVs with the help of high resolution of photos by examining gullies after rainfall and creating digital 3d models of the terrain. Similarly, flying robots are also employed in the arctic region to monitor climate change by keeping a tab on the structural changes in the glacial areas.

UAVs are also used to monitor bird colonies, track hammerhead sharks, and locate mammalian species like tigers and elephants.

Flying robots can generate 3d models of stock photos to help students visualize an area of interest. They can be made using photogrammetry by integrating separate images taken from a UAV through photogrammetry. A digital surface model (DSM) is a 3d model that illustrates the top surface of various objects such as buildings and trees. These models can then be used for flood evaluation, such as measuring the depth of the inundation.

Flying a Drone vs Analyzing the Data

Although integrating drones into school curricula is a much-hyped discussion, most of it revolves around teaching students how to fly a UAV with proper control.

However, one line of thinking places more importance on the acquisition, processing and usage of data that the drone collects. It ignores the flying skills as drones can be pre-programmed to follow a flying trajectory, thus obliterating the need for a skilled operator.

The ability to analyze and use the data would be crucial to students’ careers in the STEM field. Building on this thinking, then, STEM education for kids can be enhanced even by offering virtual drone classes that focus on the analysis and interpretation of data without the presence of a physical drone. Students understand the steps of flying a drone through a video-based tutorial so they can replicate those steps anytime. Such an approach can prepare students for real-world applications of the flying robot.

Important Points for Parents

If your kid is opting for an educational experience in drones with such an approach, keep in mind the following points.

1. Learning to fly drones with simulations eliminates the need for access to physical UAVs. Students can use this knowledge later to fly a drone when drones become more accessible and cheap. Similarly, if there is access to drones, care must be taken about the rules and guidelines for operating drones.

2. Another factor is the expertise and familiarity of the students with UAVs. For the basic level, students can be taught about gathering information, processing the imagery and creating a DSM. For more advanced students, a slightly advanced syllabus with material on collecting and processing data in UAVs fitted with sensors and tutorials on building and designing drones would be appropriate.

3. The duration of teaching students about UAVs is also another factor to be considered. If there is plenty of time, a course that lasts for a semester or a year would be good. Or if there is a limited amount of time, say a week or so, then the training can be designed as a module. Training in drones can also be obtained as a hands-on one-day workshop.

4. Where will the drone be flown to collect the data? Is it a restricted area or a free open space? Proper permissions have to be obtained. Similarly, at what time of the day will the drone be flown?

5. Flying at midday will reduce shadow in the imagery, which will impact the final 3d output of the area. Consider the weather conditions when flying the drone to avoid any possible damage.

6. Finally, what software will be used to process the data, is it licensed? Or an open source. Also, each software would demand different hardware requirements. The quality of the output would also vary. So, educators should take into account these things.

Overall, the key to successful learning using drones depends on your kid’s learning objectives and the relevance of the learning material to the objectives. Due to the extensive usage of UAVs as tools in various sectors, it is crucial for STEM career preparation that UAV knowledge and exercises be incorporated into the curriculum. Due to UAVs’ flexibility, problem-based learning opportunities can be specifically tailored to the target audience and offered for various STEM fields.

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