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!

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!