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Pilots in Training: Pine City Students Take On Drone Racing

Four Pine City students are part of the first year of a new Drone Racing league in the Midwest.

Pine City teacher Joanne Blake learned about the program while visiting St. Cloud State for a conference.

"A company called Fenworks had a booth there, and kids were able to fly drones."

Blake said that while talking to the Fenworks employees at the booth, she learned all of the opportunities after graduation that students could have through skills they gained from racing drones.

Fenworks is a North Dakota-based company that specializes in e-sports and drone racing at the high school level. It was started by Kaleb Dschaak, who helped build the Nexus e-sports facility at the University of North Dakota while he was a student there.

The company started providing schools in Minnesota and North Dakota with e-sports programs. Currently, they are working with over 90 schools and are expanding to other states. Some of the game titles they offer include chess, Fortnite, Rocket League, and League of Legends.

"From the prevision of e-sports, we realized that drone racing provides huge potential in the region with UND, the Air Force base, and within the agriculture industry," said Brenden Swanson, Program Development Specialist for the Eastern ND/MN Region for Fenworks.

The goal of Fenworks is to get students involved.

"About 30% to 40% of students are gaming outside of school," Swanson said. "What Fenworks seeks to do is bind that passion outside of school back into the school environment with e-sports and drone racing."

Because this is a school activity, whether its e-sports or drone racing, students still have to adhere to the academic standards set by the school district.

Connecting the students who maybe do not engage in the typical extracurricular activities is what Blake hopes comes from drone racing in Pine City.

"Kids can have sports, they can have music, but for some of those kids who don't have any of those interests, this was another niche to fill," Blake told WCMP.

For students like Joseph Warner, drone racing gave him something new to try.

"I've never really liked any other sports like football or soccer, so I thought that I would give this a try," Warner said.

This is the first year of the drone racing program for both Pine City and Fenworks.

Four students, one seventh grader and three freshmen, have joined the program. They meet at the elementary school four days a week to work on their flying skills.

Freshman Braden Osterdyk holds a drone in his hand. Taken by Joe Keyport.

Physically, the drones are about the size of a CD with four rotors and a camera mounted on top. The speed is impressive for their size.

In the elementary school gym, the drones whip around a homemade track in between working on skills like hovering and making tight turns. A parent of one of the students is working on building flags and other obstacles for them to use, but in the meantime, groups of cones set up on the floor create a loose course for the drone pilots in training to follow.

Freshman Skyler McQuade told WCMP that he had flown remote-controlled airplanes in the summer, but the drones behave differently.

"It is a whole different skill set. The planes are always flying straight, where the drones can hover. That's the harder part, trying to get it to stay still," McQuade said.

Skyler McQuade practices hovering a drone in front of him. Taken by Joe Keyport.

When the students are not running the physical drones, they sit at special computers in Mrs. Blake's classroom to fly simulated courses.

Last week was the first week of the season for the schools participating. They compete in teams of two or three students each week in trials. Because the program is so new, every school participating gets to go to state this year.

The software that they use for the simulated racing even allows students to build their own courses to challenge each other.

Freshman Braden Osterdyk says both styles of racing have their own pros and cons, but he prefers the real-time response he gets from the physical drones.

"Physics! With the simulator, there is no physics. They kinda just go everywhere."

Joanne Blake coaches the students as they run the practice course for the week. Taken by Joe Keyport.

Pine City’s Drone Racing team took part in its first competition on Friday, Oct. 6, where they took first in their match, winning all three races.

Blake said that students can still join Pine City's drone racing league; however, they will not be able to compete at the state competition because the registration window has closed. She said that they would still have local competitions for students who joined after the fact.

Their season continues until November.

You can listen to my full interview with Brenden Swanson of Fenworks below.

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