by BEN MCLEOD
Andrew Thoreson is young enough that when he visited Winona Senior High School recently, an adult asked him politely why he wasn't in class. But the business of drones and drone filmmaking is young too, and Thoreson is a local pro. He was at WSHS on Thursday, January 18, to share his experience with drones and film with the students in the school's Tech Nest.
The WSHS Tech Nest is an internship program which provides students with hands-on experiences in a host of tech fields, as well as providing them with direct interaction with students and others who may need assistance with computers, phones, or other devices. The club has a variety of activities outside the school, such as tech support consulting, 3-D printing phone cases, and a variety of video and streaming projects, and the new drone opens up many options. Far from being a toy simply for the tech club, the drone is a tool with applications across the senior high's curriculum. Math teachers plan to use the flight data from drone missions to plot the craft's course in three dimensions. Science teachers may use the drone to explore sensitive areas of the local environment, and social studies classes can use it to map out the river region. The potential uses for streaming school events and athletics are clear; the drone is a high-tech resource that can benefit the whole school.
Thoreson, a recent Winona State graduate, was invited to speak after working with the Frozen River Film Festival to make its first original movie, "Lark Ascending," an aerial exploration of the Winona area set to a piece of music by the same name. Thoreson, a business major, didn't go to school for photography or technology, but a WSU professor, Dr. Grier, purchased a drone and sparked Thoreson's interest.
One of the first projects Thoreson completed on his own was a video tour of the Winona State campus, which he said was not only helpful in learning the technical foibles of drone piloting, but a real education about the legalities and safety regarding piloting a small aircraft around a residential area. This was a subject on which Thoreson focused, and one that Tech Nest administrator Jeremy Graves wanted his students to understand. In the early days of civilian drone use, the laws were ambiguous or nonexistent, making for a kind of "Wild West" situation where pilots could do more or less as they pleased. Drone use is currently overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, and to use a drone as a hobbyist is much different than using one as a for-profit business tool. Currently the FAA requires anyone receiving income from drones to have a special pilot's license, which is a three-month process involving much of the same information that pilots of commercial airliners or twin prop planes need to master. While some people are inclined to take to the air as soon as their new drone is out of the box, Thoreson relayed the story of Minnesotan Mical Caterina, currently faced with five violations of FAA regulations for a total of $55,000 in fines, for using his personal drone to take photographs of an event he had been asked to cover, even without being paid. The Tech Nest has considered a few different projects that would allow the students to use the skills they've learned out in the wider community, but repairing the cracked screen of a cellphone is different than flying through airspace used by planes, over crowded areas, or alongside buildings, so those students interested in working with drones had a lot to learn. Graves told his students "just because you can, doesn't mean you should," and explained not only the legal consequences of violating federal aviation law, but the common-sense reasons to respect public airspace and that the privacy of others is crucial education. Skirting the laws is a common mistake for new droners, and Thoreson took the time to share what he learned. "They need to hear this stuff from someone who's not me," Graves explained.
But there are only so many federal aviation rules a group of high school students can absorb before they need to go outside and fly around. Fortunately, the WSHS campus has the rough equivalent of five football fields of space along Lake Winona, where the aspiring pilots and directors can learn to safely and responsibly pilot the school's new drone. They haven't had many opportunities yet this school year; the drone was purchased in November with a Winona Area Public Schools Foundation Dare to Dream grant, and it has been very cold and windy — not ideal flying conditions. Accompanied by Thoreson and Graves, the Tech Nest students gathered in front of the large southern windows of the WSHS concourse and took turns taking to the air. Shielding their eyes from the sun, students closely followed the small craft's course against the bluffs in the background, crowding around whomever was currently in the "pilot's chair." For some of the Tech Nest students, the new drone and the presence of a professional drone pilot and filmmaker was exciting. "I mean, I love photography, I love tech; if can do either one, I'm totally happy," admitted student Taylor Stanislawski. In the early days of learning this skill, much of the piloting is lifting off, hovering, turning, and returning to the landing zone without damaging the technology. Drones can be fun, but they are also tools. The trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has predicted more than 100,000 new jobs in unmanned aircraft by 2025, when many of these aspiring pilots and photographers will be entering the workforce. These students will receive training in a new technology and the fundamentals of a business that's got nowhere to go but up.