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Girl competing in the Aerial Drone Competition, making a facial expression through keyhole gates

Partnering with the REC Foundation for Drone Competitions

Partnering with the REC Foundation for Drone Competitions

If you haven't already noticed from our website and our newsletters, we've recently partnered with the REC Foundation for an opportunity that I'm really excited about. Many might already be familiar, but for those who haven't heard of the REC Foundation, they're the ones behind running the VEX Robotics competitions, which are actually the largest robotics competitions in the world for students. It's true! They even have a Guinness World Record!

If your school doesn't have a VEX Robotics program, there's a high likelihood that another school in a nearby district or an after school program in town has a program. Age groups range from middle school all the way up to university level competitions, and students participate in a series of challenges that change every year, which involve building, coding, and piloting various kinds of robots. There are events at the local level, all the way up to an international championship every year. Think of it like robotics Olympics meets esports, and it looks something like this.

A view of the stadium from above at the VEX World Championship event in 2022

Photo courtesy of REC Foundation

Seriously, check out their Flickr album of this year's event, it's wild!

In recent years, there's been interest from both participants and the REC Foundation themselves in creating a drone event. There are growing applications for drones in the industry, including in agriculture, photography, equipment maintenance, delivery, search & rescue, and more. As I'm sure many schools and teachers have also seen, they've become a topic of discussion in the classroom when covering technology. It's also just really fun to see things fly around, and we've found drones to be a great way to engage students in technology literacy.

With years of experience working with drones in the classroom and the launch of our CoDrone EDU, we were eager to partner up and support the creation of a drone competition in the REC Foundation's arsenal of events. The Aerial Drone Competition launched in 2019, though of course the pandemic necessitated shifting the 2020 and 2021 seasons to virtual events temporarily. However, it did also create a unique opportunity for us to align the launch of our CoDrone EDU with the return of the Aerial Drone Competition back to in-person events. So we're super excited to announce that in the 2022-23 season, the CoDrone EDU is officially an approved drone for the Aerial Drone Competition.

So what's the Aerial Drone Competition?

The Aerial Drone Competition is a series of point-based challenges played on a 24 x 24 foot arena, made for middle and high school students.

The Aerial Drone Competition arena at the championship event in 2022

Photo courtesy of REC Foundation

Each game will have a red alliance and a blue alliance, attempting to rack up as many points as possible. This year's challenge is called Blackout. There's a piloted portion, and a programmed autonomous portion. In the piloted challenge, alliances will have 2 minutes to earn points. Alliances can earn points by collecting as many ping pong balls as possible, flying through keyhole gates, and then landing the drone in 1 of 4 targets. In the autonomous challenge, alliances will have 60 seconds to attempt the same kinds of challenges, but everything must be done through code only—no piloting.

Check out the video below.

The REC Foundation is working tirelessly to create official local tournament events that will occur between October 2022 and March 2023. Teams that compete at the local qualifying tournament can then move on to Championship Events in March - June 2023. As of this writing, there are tournament events in 15 states across the country—more are continuing to be added. You can find the local tournament events at RobotEvents.

For a full explanation of the actual competition, check out the full game manual on the Aerial Drone Competition's website.

Why competitions?

At Robolink, we've always felt that learning something highly technical like coding is the most engaging when you can see it come to life, like seeing your code make a drone draw a square in the sky. Competitions are a fantastic way to take a lot of those same motivations for teaching through robotics and turning them into a focused and concrete goal to work towards—the success of VEX competitions attests to that. The Aerial Drone Competition isn't just about doing something fun, it's about learning the hard skills of drone technology, piloting, and coding, as well as the soft skills of teamwork and collaboration.

The hard (technical) skills

Opening up the CoDrone EDU and laying the contents out on the table

First, students are learning all of the technical skills involved in practicing for the challenges. They need to learn to pilot the drone, flight vocabulary, conducting maintenance and repair, doing autonomous flight with code, and reading documentation. By submerging themselves in drone technology, they're exposing themselves to an industry that's growing rapidly. Even if they don't go into a drone-related career, the skills of computational thinking, coding, comprehending documentation are all skills that can apply to a wide field of professions.

The soft (social emotional) skills

A team at the Aerial Drone Competition in 2022 celebrate

Photo courtesy of REC Foundation

Secondly, the team aspect of the competition helps develop a students' soft skills. It's no secret that extracurriculars have many tangible benefits beyond just the actual skill a participant learns. Soccer doesn't just make you better at scoring field goals, it also builds character and teamwork skills; playing an instrument doesn't just make you better at playing the instrument, it improves coordination skills, sharpens focus, and if you're in a band, helps develop social skills. Studies show that students involved in extracurriculars graduate at higher rates, have improved concentration, have lower rates of drug or alcohol use, among many other benefits.

The Aerial Drone Competition's challenges themselves also can't be done alone, because some parts of the challenge will be out of line of sight for the pilot, so teams will need to work together to come up with effective communication skills and problem solving as a team to win the most points. Knowing how to navigate a social and team environment is something many employers look for in new graduates, and building those social and emotional skills at an early age is crucial.

Benefits for the school

A teacher coaching a student about drones while she holds the CoDrone EDU

For the school itself, creating a club after school is a great way to build on the community atmosphere in the school. In education circles, you may have heard the refrain Maslow before Bloom, as in Maslow's hierarchy of needs first, before Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. It's the idea that even before the actual learning itself, a student's basic need for a sense of safety and belonging to a community must be met.

Picture a physics or math teacher starting a drone club after school, because a few students expressed interest. The club starts with just 4 students, working together to build the practice arena in the gym and practicing once a week. Once students start seeing or hearing about a club after school that gets to practice flying drones, it attracts more students. Maybe these students weren't drawn to athletics or the arts, but flying drones: they're all about it. It gives them a sense of purpose after school. Perhaps other schools in the district also want to join the league and compete, so they create their own club and join their local tournament as well. As a district, all the teams work together to organize a road trip to their regional tournament during their second semester.

This is a very typical story that we've seen happen countless times in various school districts. We and the REC Foundation offer a bunch of resources to help facilitate making that process easier, including webinars, training, and instructions for creating your own practice arena.

The future of our partnership

The exciting part about this is that we're just in the beginning stages of this partnership—there's so much more to come! The REC Foundation intends to continue growing the Aerial Drone Competition, and we intend to help however we can. We will continue to create more content that will be helpful for participating teams, and we'll continue building features and tools that will help participants in tackling the challenges (without giving away the answers!). We will also offer our expertise in making the competitions even more exciting as the partnership grows. We're very excited for what's ahead!

Head on over to the Aerial Drone Competition page to learn more about the competition and find resources to help your school get started.

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