Acing the drone obstacle course
‘Let’s Fly’ immersive pedagogy builds confidence along with skill in Ethiopia
On a bright May morning, the Addis Ababa Golf Club looks like it is readying for a children’s birthday party with red flags and yellow cones arranged in circles, squares and lines. Balloons fly from yellow tape along a broom handle balanced on two chairs. Landing pads dot the grass. Thirty participants from Civil Aviation, the Geospatial Information Institute, the National Meteorological Agency, Somali Regional State, and other government agencies arrive for the ‘Let’s Fly’ two-day workshop.
In less than 30 minutes, the group has been briefed on safety, given an overview of the training, divided into four groups. They are now out of their chairs and onto the green, where they will spend 90% of the course time. Flying a drone will go into muscle memory, much like the way we learn to drive a car: going through the motions over and over until responses become automatic.
Each flight instructor, on mission from WFP standby partner Help.ngo, oversees two flying groups, a purposeful balance between safety and practice: too many drones in the air at once is a safety hazard, but too few means that students won’t get enough flying time. The buzz of only four drones, like a swarm of flies, drifts into the conference room. More than 45 standby partner organizations assist 14 UN agencies, providing additional staffing and expertise for specific missions. In addition to having technical knowledge, teaching experience and medical expertise, the two staff from Help.ngo value making personal connections with their students.
Andrew Peter from Nebraska tells a funny story about flying a drone from the back of a donkey. Close by, on another field, Matthew Cua from Manila watches the vultures circle near the drones and recalls instances when birds have tried to attack the unfamiliar objects. Andy might use more direct language, and Matt might talk faster, but what they have in common is a way of personally connecting to the students, treating them as individuals, while at the same time holding them to strict safety standards.
“Taking out the technical aspects and breaking it down to real world experiences helps students connect to unfamiliar technology,” explains Peter about his teaching style.
The methodology and content of the course have been honed since Let’s Fly was first offered in Madagascar in 2018, based on student feedback and performance, with a general trend towards greater simplification and increased practice time. “By asking students about their experiences we could see there was a gap between academic-style lectures and field exercises where they are expected to implement this technology. We could see that the missing link is this practical application portion that we are now implementing,” explains Adam Marlatt, an expert on mission for the World Food Programme (WFP) who oversees the three modules of drone training, ‘Let’s Fly’, ‘Let’s Map’, and ‘Let’s Coordinate’.
A sense of play
‘Let’s Fly’ incorporates teaching methods that have a lot in common with best-practice from childhood education: hands-on learning, small group work, teacher-as-facilitator instead of lecturer. Matt and Peter are purposefully informal to put their groups at ease. Flying a drone requires confidence and the willingness to take risks, which can be inhibited if students feel intimidated.
Yewubdar Mekasha, a participant from UNHCR, had a shaky first day, but recovered quickly with the help of the two trainers. “On the first day, I had a crash, but the instructors encouraged me anyway. That’s how you learn. They were supportive, so on the second day, I was full of confidence and completed the obstacle course by myself,” she says.
A sense of play is palpable on the second day of the training, where student’s skills will be pushed. Peter’s group follows him on foot through the obstacle course so they can see which poles to fly through, and where their line of sight will be obstructed. The most treacherous part of the course, where balloons dangle from a broom stick, is called the ‘mouth of the poisonous Ethiopian caterpillar’, which takes the edge off an otherwise demanding drone maneuver.
“Did you have fun? I had fun, and that’s the most important part,” says Peter at the end of the first day’s debrief.
“We look for instructors that have unique ways of engaging with students. People that are good at technical instruction but can also relate to participants and tie the course to real world experiences so that participants understand why we’re going through these processes and steps,” explains Marlatt.
The exercises build up from the basics. Before take-off, check to see what trees and other obstacles are in the area and who is standing too close to the launch pad. This is how you turn right, left, gain height. Always point the camera away from your face, so as to avoid flying the drone into yourself. Then, slowly, new features, such as rotation and multiple landings, are added to the pilot’s repertoire. Along the way, students have a chance to troubleshoot various scenarios, such as, what do you do when the drone runs out of battery power mid-flight?
Some students, like Degu Tadesse from the Geospatial Information Institute, immediately take to this new technology. Within hours, Tadesse was helping his classmates to steer and land, and asking instructors questions about the more complicated task of how to take photos from the drones.
The most essential skill that is worked on is confidence — not through false praise, but by holding students to real account. A certificate is awarded at the end only to those who have mastered the prescribed skill set. “No more flying today,” Matt tells his group after one student loses a drone in a tree. Then he gathers the group together, reminds them they are all supposed to be spotters for the drone pilot and goes over the expectations before reversing the ban.
Expanding the program in Africa
This is the first time the three-part module has been run in Ethiopia, where interest from many of the participating agencies was a catalyst for the introduction of this technology to the country under the leadership of Pierre Lucas, Chief Air Transport Officer at WFP Ethiopia. After successful training workshops in Mozambique and Madagascar in 2018, Ethiopia is the third African country to take part.
This style of training fosters real independence, which is what we really mean by ‘capacity building’. When members of this group go back to their offices, they will be able to do more than discuss the theoretical applications of drones. Instead, they can send a drone up to take photos of a flood-prone area, so that their supervisors can see how the speed and relative low-cost of this technology will enhance disaster response.
“Seeing is believing,” says Marlatt.