How to Build a Drone Cage For Your Makerspace On the Cheap!

When I first tell people that I teach programming and allow my elementary students to pilot drones in our library, they generally give me that look of confusion.  The same one you might get when you envision a chimpanzee driving a car; you bet they could do it, but you sure wouldn’t want to be on the road while it is happening.

In our makerspace, The IDEA Lab, we, of course, have safety as our first priority.  To this end, we wanted to create a space where students, especially students who are just getting started with drones, could fly safely and not hurt themselves, others, or even the drones.

We got the idea for a drone cage from a Twitter post from the company Skill Share.  They had developed a fantastic program in the UK in which they bring a drone cage into primary classrooms and teach kids to code and fly.  This unlocked the idea of how to make drone safety a reality for me.  The interesting thing about their cage design was that it could fit in traditional classrooms, not just large assembly areas.  We wrote to the company asking if they would be willing to build me one.  They were incredibly gracious and came up with a kit that they would sell us, but when we took into account the cost of shipping, it was not feasible.

So we explored other options.

While we are sure these two kits would have done the job, not many makerspaces have this kind of money in their budget, or for that matter this much space!  we decided that we would find a way to make one ourselves.

We started with the frame.  We knew we would make the structure out of PVC because it is cheap and readily available.  It didn’t have to have very thick or sturdy ‘poles.’  All it would be holding was some light netting.  The individual PVC tubes are fairly inexpensive.  When you start adding two, three and four-way connectors, the cost begins to creep up quickly. we knew that the cage also had to be easy to break down and store. Lastly, while our space has 20′ ceilings, if our colleagues at other schools ever wanted to borrow it would need to be able to fit in a space with 8-9′ ceilings.   After estimating the cost of purchasing the PVC and connectors, we decided that there had to be a simpler and hopefully cheaper solution.

In our research, we came across an image of students playing a game that reminded us of the playground game four square, but there more than four ‘squares,’ and the game seemed to be played in the air.  A bit more digging led us to a physical education game called ‘Nine Square in the Air.’  Soon we found them on Twitter:

We thought, “This would be perfect!”  Bonus, if we used this as the base for our drone cage, our gym teachers could use it indoors or out for a fun extension to volleyball and four square.  After checking that our colleagues in the gym would be interested we decided to order the deluxe kit from Paolos Sports. The deluxe kit ($799) includes everything you need to make an 18′ by 18′ square flying area and comes packaged in extremely sturdy storage bags.

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The high-quality storage bags that the long poles are packaged.

Palos Sports does offer a kit that is half the price.  It includes all the powder coated steel connectors and you just need to cut the poles from PVC pipe.  We chose not to go this route.

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The powder-coated steel connectors are incredibly high quality.

Next, we had to figure out how to cover the drone cage in a netting that would stop the drone from flying out of the area but not break the bank.  We explored a wide variety of mesh netting from the styles used in golfing ranges to batting cages.  In the end, we discovered that for $25 we could get 100′ of 7′ tall deer fencing that would work perfectly for our set up.

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Deer netting is an easy to use/cost-effective alternative.
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The flexible netting is easily attached to the frame with zip ties.

A few PVC connectors and pool noodles later, some simple obstacles were created and hung from the tubes.

Now that the cage is up, it’s time to start flying!

Demco Blog: Makerspace Tools

I get asked all the time, ‘what tools do you recommend for maker spaces?’  It’s an important question because funds are precious and you want to be sure that whatever tool you add get used in the best possible way.

One of my biggest hopes as an educator is to inspire students to keep learning outside of the classroom.  The Hour of Code has become a staple in our community, and I’ve worked hard to push ‘beyond’ that single ‘hour of code.’

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We have several ‘programmable’ devices in our space: Sphero, Dot and Dash and even BB8.  Our students love programming these tools to navigate obstacle courses and perform missions.  However, nothing has made more of an impact than our Parrot Minidrones.

I’m an early adopter when it comes to drones.  I’ve kickstarted multiple drone platforms. Sadly, none of them were as slick and easy to fly as their rollout videos were.  I’ve fallen in love with the Parrot drone family.  My first Parrot drone was the AR 2.0.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-5-40-26-pm I saved for a year to buy it, and I still fly it with my students.  I like that it has a giant foam bumper that protects the props as well as fingers.  I’ve only had to replace a single motor and that was totally my fault for flying indoors without the bumpers.  Since then, I’ve purchased ten of the Parrot Cargo Minidrones.  Don’t let their size fool you.  These little guys are powerful and surprisingly smart.

I wrote a post earlier this month about my experience teaching an all-day professional development workshop with educators about drones in education.  You can check it out here.

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If you do a quick search on Youtube for drone fails, you’ll find tens of thousands of examples of people of all ages destroying their drones; many on their maiden flight.  While these mini drones are not nearly as expensive as the more advanced Bebop Drone I also purchased, I think it is essential to take good care of your tools.

Parrot has a native app that you can download to your tablet or phone and fly in seconds, but unless you have piloting experience, you will probably end up wrecking your drone in minutes.  For example: out of the box, the drone’s maximum height is set to 9.6 feet.  Most homes and schools have significantly lower ceilings.  So, when you start climbing it is probably going to go straight into whatever is directly above it; light fixture, ceiling fan, etc.  If you are outdoors, any breeze at all will carry these tiny quadcopters into the clutches of trees and bushes. Setting that height to a lower maximum and teaching students to use a block coding program like Tynker has helped me turn these ‘toys’ into ‘tools.’

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Once my students were familiar with the basics of block coding with Tynker, I created some basic ‘missions’ for them to fly. (Parrot gives the Tynker Drones 101 curriculum as part of its EDU purchasing plan.)  

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The first mission was simply taking off, traveling a set distance and landing safely.  The missions grew in complexity.  Eventually, they were traveling in complex flight paths and performing aerial acrobatics that would make any pilot proud.  Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.27.35 AM

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 11.27.16 AMAfter completing what we called ‘flight school’ students were ready to navigate obstacles with the native free flight app.  Soon we were timing ‘runs’ and setting records on the courses.

By establishing rules for safety and responsibility, we’ve minimized damage.  By adding the block coding to these drones, my students have taken this ‘toy’ and turned it into a tool that pushes the boundaries of the Hour of Code.  I’ve never seen something motivate students to solve problems more passionately than these drones.

What’s next?  I’ve just recently learned about another platform for developing block coding.  It is called Drone Blocks.

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This drag and drop programming language is deceivingly powerful.  Programmers have used these basic tools to create fantastically complex autonomous missions that collect an incredible amount of information and data.  One, for example, creates 360-degree panoramas all autonomously.  There is no doubt that as students at younger and younger ages become proficient in basic coding and flight of unmanned aerial vehicles, fantastic new developments are in the near future.

Game of Drones Presentation @ #ICE17

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This past week I had the pleasure of presenting a day-long workshop at the Illinois Computing Educator Conference.  As I told my participants, I am not an expert in drones, but I have had a life-long fascination with flight.  I’m sure this is in part due to growing up on Air Force bases around the world as a child.

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My first airplane

I have purchased a wide variety of drones in the last decade.  My first drone or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle was the Parrot AR Drone 2.0.

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Believe it or not, I still have this drone and flew it during my workshop last week.  While it was cutting edge when I bought it, the much smaller drones made by Parrot in the last couple of years are far more responsive and stable.

The core concept I wanted our participants to walk away with was that drones are much more than remote controlled toys.  In fact, they are powerful tools that can teach coding, problem-solving and develop grit and resilience.

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Drones I’ve used with students. My favorites are the Parrot drones.

I began by familiarizing folks with the Tynker Coding App.  Tynker is currently the only block coding app that works with the Parrot Minidrones.

Most were familiar with block-type coding, so after some exploring with Tynker’s Crash Course, they were ready to connect and begin coding their drones.

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I developed three challenges for the participants.  My goal was to give them a chance to work through the design thinking process that my students use.  Through these challenges, I was also hoping to highlight different STEAM subject areas.  The first lesson, The Cargo Challenge, asked them to transport the maximum amount of cargo a predetermined distance and at a minimum height.

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The Parrot Minidrones have Lego connectors on top and this allowed us to easily attach Lego bricks to the top of the drones.  It was exciting to watch the different groups try various amounts of bricks.  The most interesting part of this exploration was that not only does the amount of cargo matter, but how it is affixed to the drone.  A wide base helped keep the drone steady in flight.

Our second challenge was an example of how coding and robotics could be used to create art.  I taught everyone a mini-lesson on low light photography and light trails or light painting and showed them several videos that demonstrated some of the ways professional drone choreographers have used this technique.

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We attached tiny LED blinking lights to the drones and then programmed a variety of simple programs.  We captured the long exposures with a slow shutter speed app for the iPad, which was mounted on a tripod.  One key point was that the Parrot Minidrones need to be able to see the ground in order to orient themselves.  Because the lights were low, we used a flashlight to illuminate the ground below its flight.   Setting up several small LED’s to illuminate the ground would make this process even more successful.  Here you can see the whole process in action:

Our third challenge incorporated much of what was learned earlier.  The challenge was to transport and deliver a minifigure from one point to another.

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I should have added ‘safely’ to the instructions because several of the groups found novel ways to ‘deliver’ their cargo.

We closed out the day exploring all the different drone platforms and exploring various curricular areas and how drones can be incorporated.  Here is probably my favorite part of the day when we had all the different drone platforms flying around the room.  I love the ‘buzz’ of both the drones and the participants learning and sharing.

I created a padlet with resources and lesson ideas.  You can access it here and feel free to add your own ideas as well.

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This was my first time leading a full-day professional development.  It took an incredible amount of time and preparation, but I think it went incredibly well.  If you are interested, the entire presentation is available HERE.

Game of Drones

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 5.33.49 PMDrones.  What do you think of when you hear the word drone?  Do you think of Amazon dropping packages at your door, or maybe something a bit more nefarious?  I guess because I’m a tech geek, I think of how I can integrate curriculum with these zippy little devices.  Earlier this week I attended a workshop entitled Game of Drones at Quest Academy in Palatine, IL. Daniel Rezac, Director of Academic Technology at Quest was our host.  Greg Novosad, the owner of Go Drone X Extreme Drone Sports, was our expert guide.

As in all other forms of technology, the drone revolution is toward smaller, lighter and cheaper.  Greg showed us the state of the art drone from last year and this year.  It was amazing how much smaller, safer and lighter the current model was.  It was these models that we began to explore.  IMG_2601

Last year’s model; note the props which can easily take off a finger.

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This year’s model.  Notice the size of the quadcopter on the left.  Each prop has a protective guard to protect fingers, etc.

We each took turns getting our bearings with these tiny little quadcopters.  We kept them low to the ground and practiced basic movements.

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In this image, you can see part of the course that was laid out for us in the gym at Quest Academy and if you look close you can see the tiny drone I was flying.

The ‘game changer’ in my opinion was when Greg shared the First Person View Virtual Reality headset.  We each took a turn flying the drones with these headsets on.

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The VR Headset showing my hand reaching for the quadcopter.

IMG_2660Me wearing the headset and trying very hard to fly my drone!

I found it very difficult to fly with the goggles.  I kept turning my head and hoping that it would react to my movements.  Unfortunately, the goggles only show you what the drone is seeing.  The weirdest thing was when I flew the drone across the gym and turned it back towards me.  I was seeing myself in the goggles.  Quite disorienting.

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The view ‘inside’ the goggles!

Besides just having fun, we also brainstormed how we could integrate drones into our programs.  There was a lot of support around developing a club in our districts and then hosting various ‘events’ in our gyms throughout the winter months.  I was the only elementary representative and I know my kids could handle this type of thing.  I hope to be able to get some students interested and start meeting after school to hone our skills.

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I did some exploring of resources and found out that a brand new book entitled Drones in Education: Let Your Students’ Imaginations Soar has just come out.  For me, the most exciting thing about the book is that it is geared toward K-12.  Most resources around drones are geared toward older students.

I’m an early adopter of many drone platforms.  I presently have in my lab at least five different drone models from four different makers.  I’m most excited about a model that will be introduced to my students this fall, the Parrot Mini Drones.

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Parrot has partnered with Tynker to get teachers and kids excited about drones in the classroom.  Click HERE to try to win a Parrot Mini Cargo Drone for your classroom!

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Tynker works very much like Scratch and other programming tools like Tickle or Lightning Lab for Sphero or Ollie.

Parrot and Tynker developed some lessons to get kids coding and to take advantage of the natural curiosity and enthusiasm around drones.  Here a few highlights from the lesson:

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The whole lesson can be found here.

What makes these drones so accessible in my opinion is that you control them with an iPad.  Of course, they have ‘free flight’ modes where you basically move them about with the iPad being the remote control.  But the place where the real magic happens is when you add in a programming language like Tynker or Tickle.  This is where you can build step by step programs and then send the drones on missions.  To me, this is one of the most exciting ways to get kids thinking and exploring coding.  I can’t wait to get the Parrot Cargo Drones flying in our library.

I have collected a multitude of resources beyond what I’ve shared here.  You can access them on the Google Doc HERE.  If you have other resources I should add to the list, please send me an email with details!