From drone competition to space missions, national conference at GWCC elevates science

The mission: successfully pick up a payload of fuel cells and deliver the package as close as possible to its intended target. In five minutes, deliver as many packages as possible.

No, this wasn’t a plotline from “The Avengers” or an audition for the U.S. Postal Service, Amazon, UPS or FedEx.

Rather, it was one of the directives laid out for the Horizon Educational Drone Competition held Saturday (March 17) as part of the National Science Teachers Association National Conference at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC).

More than 15,000 science educators, administrators, scientists, business and industry representatives and 350-plus exhibitors, converged upon the GWCC for the four-day conference (March 15-18). The convention center was abuzz with science, technology and the wonderment of discovery –  all kinds of cool and innovative stuff – from the drone competition to a LEGO robotics interactive station in the exhibition hall, to classroom sessions on “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse” and a live downlink to the International Space Station where attendees posed real-time questions to NASA astronaut Scott Tingle.

The drone competition courses under construction in the Building B exhibit hall.

Flying their aircraft within an area cordoned off by netting and steel piping at the back of the exhibit hall, a dozen teams from Georgia high schools and middle schools squared off in the drone competition which consisted of three main challenges: the aforementioned package delivery exercise, a surveillance mission, and an obstacle course race.

Contestants compete in the Horizon Educational Drone Competition on Saturday, March 17 during the National Science Teachers Association National Convention at the Georgia World Congress Center.

How did the teams qualify?

“We sent out information about the program and then they applied. But we focus on teachers that have robotics and engineering (instruction experience) because we want to make sure the program is successful the first year in the state; we need to have teachers that have done this stuff,”  said Daniel Mehay, business development manager for Horizon Educational, which runs a variety of robotics programs throughout the country. “We’re the education division and sole distributors of a hydrogen fuel cell company – we make hydrogen fuel cells that power cars, and telecom drones. So what we focus on is distribution and growth of programs that pertain to science. We actually produce and manufacture our own science equipment.”

The company develops and distributes hands-on teaching materials and equipment, including its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) kits.

Although intended to be fun, Saturday’s competition had a serious edge to it.

Prior to the contest, participants were required to attend a pilots’ meeting where they were walked through all of the safety requirements, said Mehay. “If teams don’t follow those rules that we set in place to make sure things are safe, they’re automatically disqualified – there’s no room for that,” said Mehay. “That’s how we start the day – it sets the tone, really.”

Each team also had to make 10-minute oral presentations in front of the judges, discussing the designs of their drones, and explaining how the unmanned aircraft systems are being used in real-life applications. Drones have stirred up various levels of controversy as local and federal governments try to keep up with the rapidly developing technology, but a 2013 study found that the drone industry has the potential to create an $82 billion economic impact in the U.S.