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The drones have arrived

The drones have arrived
JEFF VALCHER La Vernia staff members and coaches experiment with the new drone during the Powder Puff football game.

Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane? Why ... it’s the football team’s new drone!

Those attending the Powder Puff football game last May at Bear Stadium will remember the craft zooming back and forth behind the plays. La Vernia ISD’s Chief Technology Officer James Garza was at the controls for some of that time.

“The idea just built up,” Garza said.

The drone will be used primarily for football practice, Garza said, hovering behind the quarterback or wherever it’s needed, providing valuable feedback on blocking schemes, routes, and spacing.

“Anytime you can get an aerial view to see the whole team at one time, that’s a great advantage,” said Head Football Coach Chris Taber.

One would think the video would be shaky and hard to view, but the DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter isn’t your average drone. The video automatically stabilizes, so that it’s as clear as if it were attached to a tripod on the sidelines.

“It’s taking away the [sideline] tower,” Garza said.

One of its safety features ensures that the players won’t have to check over their shoulders for falling drones. With a battery pack that lasts only 20 minutes, it’s imperative that the craft begins heading back to the sidelines with plenty of time to spare.

Fortunately, the drone handles this itself. If it senses that it’s low on battery, it calculates the distance it must travel from where it is to its home base landing area, and then decides whether it needs to automatically fly itself back and land.

“These are much more sophisticated than the ones you get at a Black Friday sale that crash into the wall ... 100 times easier to fly,” Garza said, adding that it will also stop automatically if it senses that it’s too close to an object.

Drones may eventually be used to cover games, but haven’t been cleared by the University Interscholastic League (UIL), Taber said. The organization must first rule on matters such as proper protocol with multiple craft and insurance liability.

La Vernia ISD already has an unofficial drone program, actually, under the leadership of school librarian Nicole Ellis, which took off last year with approximately 50 kids. Well... “program” might be a stretch.

“I’m the only place on campus that will let you fly a drone,” she clarified.

La Vernia ISD had its first engineering class last year, as well, and flying drones has become a marketable skill, she said whether you’re a power company inspecting its lines or a county health department spraying mosquitoes.

Which is why Ellis held the first annual Game of Drones race last March in the library, where the kids constructed their own obstacle course and then showed off their skills. Ellis plans to start an official Drone Club next year, where they will be using a 3D printer to make their own parts.

“Next year, the engineering students from last year will mentor the new students,” she said.

And the plan is for one of these engineering students to pilot the drone at football practices, thus picking up valuable experience to pass on to future generations of pilots. What else these versatile machines will be used for remains to be seen.

“We’re very fortunate to have a very forward-thinking staff here at the school,” Garza said.

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