FAIRMONT — Students from across the United States took their skills to new heights on Friday by competing in the Aerial Drone Competition Championship at Fairmont State University.

The event, which hosted a total of 62 teams from 10 different states, gave middle and high school student drone crews an opportunity to display their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics abilities while also learning about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s upcoming mission, the Dragonfly.

Dragonfly, which launches in 2027, will fly to a location and spend an entire Titan day collecting scientific materials at that location, and then fly to the next location. A Titan day is equivalent to roughly 16 Earth days. Also, the Dragonfly science-phased mission is 2.7 years (32 months) baseline.

The event was produced by the NASA Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility located in Fairmont, and hosted by the West Virginia Robotics Alliance.

For the tournament, each team completed games and skills tests to earn points. In each head-to-head match, or game, teams formed temporary alliances with others in order to complete tasks such as moving ping pong balls to different areas by using the wind produced by the drones, while simultaneously avoiding obstacles and maintaining speed, height and distance.

The competition also included autonomous flight challenges, in which students programmed their drones to fly to specific points, instead of using a remote control.

The real challenge, however, came at the very end, in which one student must land their drone behind a curtain without seeing the drone itself, known as the “Blackout.” Instead, they are allowed one person to watch the drone and direct the pilot on how to land in the correct area.

This challenge is meant to simulate the same challenges faced by NASA scientists, which will face “numerous points” where contact with the drone is lost, according to Ensign.

In addition to learning mechanical and coding skills, such as replacing blades and motors in the drones and programing their drones to fly a specific way, student teams also learned important life skills, such as game strategy, team work and collaboration and organization.

“Working on our strategies for the competition, to make sure that we have a solid strategy and backup options that we can really work hard in,” said Kaitlyn Saunders, who traveled to West Virginia from Washington, D.C. with her team, Ariel Arson, to compete in the championship for the first time.

When asked what they were most excited about, fellow team member Ilaza Krajick said that despite some difficulty with coding, they were looking forward to working together and having fun.

“For me personally, it’s being able to spend time with my other team members and also doing a sport that’s super fun,” Krajick said.

While there were several teams that traveled up to 14 hours to take part in the competition, there were also many teams that stayed close to home.

“I love doing robotics things because it keeps me involved in STEM,” said Lily Farry, a member of the Robo BeeGees from Saint Albans, West Virginia. “I think it is really cool.”

Farry went on to say that the main issue the team faced was not having a dedicated practice space. The team only obtained one recently.

While technological advances and interest in drones has been on the rise the past several years, many are having issues getting others to take it seriously.

“The challenges are that many parents really don’t understand the STEM aspect of this,” said Mike Helvey, a coach for the Air Bank team from East Bank, West Virginia. “They are more interested in the physical sports — football, basketball, baseball. And so parents give those sports priority over anything else.”

Robolink, the company based in San Diego, California that produced the drones used in the competition, hopes that by showing how simple drones are to use, people will become more open to learning about them.

“I think a lot of people are kind of afraid of drone technology and automation,” said Leila Firestone, who has worked with the company for five years. “Robolink is prepared to show that programming drones is easy. It is nothing to be afraid of. We really want to help students get excited about technology and programming and STEM.”

Members of the Dragonfly team from Johns Hopkins University, who presented two half scale models of the Dragonfly to the public for the first time as well as a test flight demonstration on the Falcon Center lawn, were also in attendance. Among them was West Virginia University alum and West Virginia native Troy Cline.

“The main goal for outreach is really for passion and inspiration,” Cline said. “Often, when students are coming from all walks of life, some of them come from just great backgrounds, others come from really incredibly difficult backgrounds, and we want to make an experience through Dragonfly and through this mission to be equitable for anybody to be a part of it.”

The final competitors will face off on May 20 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Falcon Center, after which awards will be presented.

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