Max Armstrong, 12, is a connoisseur of summer camps.
Last week he attended one in nondescript office space in a small Jacksonville Beach industrial complex. He was a few blocks from the ocean but never went outside. Despite the atypical camp location, he gave it rave reviews.
What’s not to like about a camp called Drone Pilot Race School?
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Definitely my favorite summer camp.”
Drone School is one of the summer and after-school classes offered at the newly opened Bolts & Bytes Maker Academy, a fully equipped educational “maker-space” for youth ages 9 to 16. Other current classes include 3D printing, skateboard design, spy lab, silk-screen printing and escape-room building. Camp costs are generally $150.
“Technology is more accessible than it has ever been before,” said Reed Beaubouef,. founder and president. “A maker space is just a place to build stuff. … Kids really want to build stuff.”
TRIAL AND ERROR
At Drone School, 10 youth ages 9 to 16 spent five afternoons learning to pilot, race and repair micro drones called Tiny Whoop class quadcopters. They learned aerial maneuvers, crash avoidance, control systems and basic repairs and tested their new skills on an indoor aerial obstacle course they designed themselves.
Initially they crashed the quadcopters into the floor, wall, ceiling and each other as much as they kept them in the air.
“The first day it looked like I kicked a nest of hornets. Just crazy,” Beaubouef said. “They were bouncing off everything.”
That’s why they also learned how to repair the drones, which are tough but “certainly not indestructible,” he said.
By week’s end the campers were able to smoothly maneuver the tiny drones through an obstacle course of gates, poles and tunnels made of PVC-pipe and toy hoops. They even mastered landing them on a fellow camper’s outstretched palm or on their own shoe. They also graduated from piloting basic micro drones using controllers and their own eyes — the “line of sight” method — to using FPV, or first-person view, goggles and controls to fly upgraded drones equipped with tiny video cameras.
FPV-style, Beaubouef said, “can be disconcerting at first. You can’t see above or below you. I kept hitting the ceiling.” A drone camera view showing the drone’s own pilot can be particularly odd, he said.
His charges figured it out.
“I’m going to ram into myself,” said Melvin Jones, 10. He also navigated the drone to the top of his head.
Beaubouef watched them like a proud parent.
“Nice turn, nice move,” he said, watching their flying skills. “Slow, steady, easy. No ‘berserker’ style.”
Jessie Cimino-Durden, 9, said she was surprised to find herself the only girl at the camp. One day she wore a T-shirt that proclaimed, “In a field of horses, I am a unicorn.”
“My mom said I should be proud. I am proud,” she said. “I was interested. I already had a drone.”
A PLACE WHERE KIDS WANT TO GO
Beaubouef hadn’t flown a drone until about 18 months ago when a friend offered him a test flight.
“I was immediately hooked,” he said.
Drones fit right in with his plans for the academy, which he said combined his fine arts, education and “tinkering” background. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, Beaubouef has been a director of online advertising products at web.com and of educational training at the University of North Florida.
Project-based learning, he said, is ideal for the preteen and young teenage group but can be lacking in schools that are focused on assessment tests. Also, opportunities in so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — “dry up about that age,” he said.
“I want to make the kind of place that I wish I could have gone to when I was growing up,” he said.
He found the office space, began renovations in January and opened a few months later with after-school programs, four weeks before the beginning of the school year. He feared no one would come, but they did. And many of the summer camps are already full. Some parents drive their kids to the beach site from as far away at San Marco and Riverside.
Yidelka Anzalota is the academy’s “director of making it work.” She joined Beaubouef after a 14-year mechanical engineering career in the oil and gas industry, which she said required too much travel and relocating and time away from her family. She later taught at local youth enrichment nonprofits.
In the academy programs, the kids learn more than tinkering, she said.
“They get so excited when they get an idea,” she said. “They don’t really know it, but they’re learning trouble shooting, problem solving.”
Watching the “bulbs” go off in their heads is gratifying,” Anzalota said.
One of the campers said, to no one in particular, “Life is a drone, my friend.”