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Chester schools taking flight through new drone

Rachel Southmayd
February 15, 2015

The Herald

CHESTER, S.C. - Look up in the sky in Chester County near a school building and you just might see a little machine flying through the air.

It's not a bird or a plane. It's a drone, and with it, the possibilities are endless, say school district officials.

Chester County schools decided to buy the drone in mid-December when the entire student body of the Chester Park Elementary School of the Arts was getting ready to take a "living mosaic" by creating an image out of students wearing colored shirts.

"It was going to cost us $1,500 to pay for a plane to fly over to get the picture," said Neil Rollins, the district's informational technology director and the drone's pilot. "This cost us $500."

Rollins, who has been flying model planes for decades, purchased the drone at a hobby store in Rock Hill. The device is a Blade 350 QX, a quadcopter. Rollins then attaches his GoPro camera to the drone and off it goes.

While taking the picture of the Chester Park students was certainly fun and memorable for the students and teachers, Rollins and associate superintendent Jeff Gardner said they have bigger dreams for the drone as a tool, not just a toy.

"When you have a site you're thinking about putting a new building on, you can check out the site," Gardner said. "If you're doing an evacuation drill at a school, you can take the drone all the way around the building."

The drone and camera stream video live to Rollins' smartphone, so he and members of the district staff can spot roof problems, drainage issues or other problems on district property.

The drone itself is easier to fly than a model airplane, Rollins said. It stabilizes itself and has an internal GPS system. Special software keeps the drone a certain distance from the controller, and if it senses its battery is getting low, it goes back to the spot where it launched.

Because drone technology is so new, few regulations are in place about where Rollins and the drone can go. The drone must avoid airports and military bases and not intrude on private property. The Chester district's drone has a 1,000 meter range, but Rollins said he doesn't let it get that far away.

Gardner said teachers will be able to borrow the drone, with Rollins at the controls, for educational purposes, and the district may use it to get images of sporting events, band competitions or anything else they can imagine.

"I know there's opportunities for it we haven't even thought about yet," Gardner said.

The use of the drone and camera for operations and educational purposes shows how Chester schools are dedicated to technology, said spokeswoman Brooke Clinton.

"This is just an example of us using technology in a cool way," she said.

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