The HK$30,000 Inspire 1 Quadcopter drone was hovering steadily in the air, 15 metres above the rooftop of Cheung Sha Wan Catholic Secondary School.
“See, the right hand controls the horizontal movements of the drone, and the left hand controls the elevation and rotation,” Form Four student Harry Chu Chun-ting explains.
Beside him, another student is peering into an iPad mounted on a second remote control, which controls the camera. Harry lets Young Post fiddle with the remote control, and soon an overly excited reporter lets the drone veer too close to a nearby building.
“Careful!” Harry warns. With his guidance, the Inspire 1 returns safely to the ground.
The students have had their fair share of close calls. Once, while filming a video about the school, they got reckless and flew the drone too close to the building to get better shots. They also made the mistake of controlling the drone by looking through the iPad. But because the camera wasn’t facing the way they thought, they accidentally flew in the opposite direction of where they meant to go, and it crashed.
Luckily, no one was hurt and they were able to fix the drone. But having learned their lesson, the students set up a system to ensure that younger student drone operators know what they were doing.
The first part is a written test about safety and drone regulation laws. In Hong Kong, only drones that weigh less than 7kg (without fuel) can be flown without a permit. The drone must be flown during daylight hours. It cannot go higher than 90m, and must maintain a safe distance from other people and property. Before flying a drone, it’s also important to check the KP index, which shows geomagnetic activity. If it is too high, it messes with the GPS function and the drone could get out of control.
The last part of the written test is an open-ended question about what they would do should this happen. “Many people say they would shout out warnings for people to look out, but actually the first thing they should do is try to reconnect their remote to the drone, such as by restarting the power,” says another Form Four student, Kevin Tao Chun-hong.
The second part of the exam is a flight test, where students need to steer the drone through a course. Before this, they are taught how to operate it in an area that is enclosed by a net.
“Thanks to the examination system, we haven’t had any accidents since that crash eight months ago,” says physics teacher Timothy Wat Hoi-tim, who introduced drones to his students last year to film school events.
In July last year, the school was one of the eight secondary schools chosen by the government to give its students intensive IT training. Part of a HK$6 million grant has been set aside to develop drone use in schools.
Today, the school has more than 100 drones. Besides the prized Inspire 1, it also has several Phantom 2s, as well as palm-sized drones that cost HK$150 each.
“The smaller the drone, the harder it is to operate,” says Wat. “They don’t have GPS, and air pressure doesn’t help much because they’re so light. It’s good to practise with small drones so you know what it’s like should the stabilising features stop working.”
But drones in schools are by no means uncommon. In January this year, the Hong Kong Association for Computer Education organised the city’s first-ever inter-school aerial videography competition. More than 120 teams from nearly 80 secondary schools submitted videos of their schools; the Cheung Sha Wan Catholic Secondary School team was one of the 15 teams to reach the final.
Besides filming, drones offer many useful applications. One of them is 3D mapping. The school’s drone team spent three days flying the device all over their school, snapping pictures along the way. They then ran the pictures into a software called Pix4D, which combined the pictures into a 3D map. “Right now maps like Google only offer satellite pictures. With 3D mapping, the accuracy can be hugely increased,” says Wat.
Drones can also be used to evaluate disaster zones quickly. In July last year, China’s air force reportedly used a drone for the first time to assess the damage caused by an earthquake in Xinjiang.
“It’ll be great if drones can be programmed to detect and avoid obstacles. Right now that’s a big hindrance to using drones for delivery because it’s dangerous to fly drones too far and too fast in such a dense city,” says Kevin. “But it’s fun technology to learn and experiment with. Right now there’s not a lot of regulation in Hong Kong for drones, but that’s because there haven’t been any serious accidents yet. Who knows when they’ll bring in more laws?”
Form Four student Alex Kwong Kwai-man thinks it’s also useful to learn new technology as an extracurricular activity. “Everyone’s just learning the piano right now. But as drone technology becomes more common, we’ll have the advantage because we’ve been using it for so long.”