The team from Wewa didn’t ride in on horses, and the competitors from Port St. Joe weren’t wearing chaps.
But on a sunny day Feb. 23 on the football field at Franklin County High School, the three high schools dug their spurs into a rodeo.
Sponsored by the Unmanned Safety Institute, which provides workforce development training to the drone programs at all three schools, the Forgotten Coast Drone Rodeo brought together about three dozen students and their instructors to compete on how well they could handle their technology, safely and efficiently, on a series of events.
Three members of the Experimental Aircraft Association, based at Apalachicola Regional Airport, volunteered to serve as judges – Bruce Graham, Tom Mescher and John Weaver – as each carefully timed the events, and scrutinized whether the drones had adhered to all the rules.
Following the presentation of colors by the Port St. Joe NJROTC, it was time to get down to business.
First there were the Timed Heats, where three students from each school raced in each of two heats. Students were randomly assigned heights of 20, 30 and 40 feet to maintain as they made the three laps around the goal posts.
St. Joe won that one, running about six seconds ahead of runner-up Wewa, and about 10 seconds ahead of Franklin County.
Next came the Obstacle Course, where each school provided one student in two separate runs, as they had to maneuver around and through a series of metal frames.
St. Joe won the first run, about six seconds ahead of Wewa, and Wewa took the second one about 40 seconds ahead of St. Joe.
On the Island Hopping event, students had to successfully land on and take off from four different platforms, each with a different circumference and a different height.
St. Joe was again victorious, with Wewa second, although on the second of the two trials, a hop-off had to determine a winner, after both teams had a time of 1:59:80.
For the Scavenger Hunt, five objects were hidden around the campus and students had 15 minutes to find as many as possible, photograph them, have the item checked off by a judge and return to home base.
Franklin County won that event, with St. Joe and Wewa tied for second.
The last of the events, Ground Crew, each pilot had one or two two visual observers and one or two crew members. Visual observers were scored based on their ability to help the pilot track their drone and by providing instructions for landings and take off; ground crews were scored based on their pre-flight preparations and safety.
Port St. Joe won that competition, with Wewa second and Franklin County third.
When all the events’ points were tallied, Port St. Joe emerged the overall winner, with Wewa second and Franklin third.
“All the schools had fun. The competition and spirit of the event could be seen in the interactions between the students,” said David Hughes, who coordinates Franklin County Schools’ career and technical education. “This event will be bigger and better next year.
“This event should serve as a catalyst to get students motivated to participate in the drone program at Franklin County Schools. It energized several of our students and has prompted them to want to be more involved in their class,” he said. “For that alone this event was worth every minute.”
Ken Weeks, who helps Mike Todd to instruct the Seahawks’ drone program, was instrumental in putting the rodeo together, and he brought along his fellow staffers, and his boss, Josh Olds, USI’s president and co-founder, to help.
“USI’s support of this event was phenomenal,” said Hughes. “They went above and beyond, supplying T-shirts to the students. In their school colors, no less, and providing the traveling trophy. They’ve committed to making this event bigger in the future; USI is aces in my book.”
Olds stressed that essential to drone education at the high schools, and in the more advanced program at Gulf Coast State College, is to prepare students for certification in these robotic programs, and to make sure they can perform in the workplace up to their employers’ standards for safety and efficiency.
“The goal for the high schools is to introduce them to the technology,” he said. “To make them workforce-ready with skill sets tied to industry certification. We provide pathways; we want them to have options. It’s all about a standardized workforce, with a gold standard skill set command of technology.”
Under the direction of coach Mike Todd, Franklin County’s team include Ellis Billingsley, Christian Daughtry, Genesis Jones, Daniel Lively, Ajaylen McNair, Jesus Pelico-Lopez, Thomas Pierce, Terry Proctor, Ben Sanders, JJ Sheetz, Emma Shiver, Alyssa Bowers, Cameron Nash and Luis Ramirez
Under the direction of coach Thomas Coker, Port St. Joe’s team comprised Brandon Heckenlively, Nathan Duong, Rickey Sherrill, Katie Cash, Cody Combow, Carson Davis, Caleb ZurHeiden and Ace Cannon.
Under the direction of coach Eric Bidwell, and aide Johnny Taunton, Wewa’s team featured Zach Mock, Luke Hjort, Conner Roberts, Aiden Walker, Rylan Greenland, Lukas Moore, Jace Zbikowski, Jackson Taunton, Zion Parker and Griffin Barnes.