LAND O’ LAKES — The drone hovered near a group of students, then zipped across a common area inside Sunlake High School, all the while transmitting an image of what it saw back to an iPad screen.
Matthew Andresen, 15, a Sunlake sophomore, piloted the craft with ease from the iPad, minutes later setting it down and bringing the flight to a successful completion.
Maneuvering the drone proved relatively simple, said Andresen, one of 28 students in Sunlake’s unmanned aircraft systems class, which began in January and is giving the teenagers an early introduction to the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Academy that launches at the high school in August.
“I’ve done (remote-controlled) cars,” Andresen said. “I had the feel for how it would work.”
The aeronautical academy, when in full swing, will be a dual enrollment program allowing Sunlake students to gain college credits while earning their high school diplomas, and could begin to prepare many of them for careers in aviation and aerospace.
Incoming freshmen will be able to enroll in a four-year track, and students in upper grades can take individual courses.
Among the future classes that will be offered at Sunlake High are Introduction to Aerospace; Flight Physiology and Aircraft Familiarization and Regulations.
Students who aren’t zoned for Sunlake High can apply to enroll in the academy through the district’s school choice program.
The lone instructor for the academy is Wendy Stanley, an adjunct professor from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. More instructors could be added as the program grows, Principal Steve Williams said, and he is trying to develop partnerships with the aviation community, such as Zephyrhills Municipal Airport or Tampa International Airport.
Stanley said some students joined the unmanned aircraft systems class out of curiosity; others already were weighing thoughts about aviation careers.
“There are so many careers you can have,” she said.
Sophomore Chyanna Spaulding, 15, thought little about the future employment aspect when she attended an information session about the aeronautical academy in the fall. She and a friend wanted a class together, and unmanned aircraft systems fit the bill. The more she heard, the more interesting it sounded.
She flew the drone more than a week ago and had good news to report.
“I didn’t crash it,” she said. “It was a lot easier than I thought it would be. It’s like playing a video game.”
Steven Guerrero, 17, a sophomore, said he likes the dual-enrollment aspect of the course and the opportunity to earn tuition-free college credits. He already entertained ideas about aviation jobs before signing on.
‘I’ve been thinking about being in air traffic control or a pilot,” he said.
The unmanned aircraft systems class has proved interesting, Guerrero said.
“It’s a really cool program and (Stanley) is a really nice teacher,” he said. “I’m real excited about it.”
Flying the drone is a highlight of the course, but there is plenty of classroom work as well as students learn about the history, design and development of unmanned aircraft, which are perhaps best known for their military uses but have commercial uses as well.
The battery-powered drone the Sunlake students use costs about $400. Its specifications say it can fly as high as 2,000 feet, but Stanley is somewhat skeptical, at least in part because the battery life is just 15 minutes. Then the drone must be recharged.
It’s questionable whether the Sunlake students would try such high-flying aerial skills anyway. The rules and regulations for drones still are being worked out in Washington, Stanley said, so for now the students fly the drone indoors in a common area, where a high ceiling and wide hall leave plenty of room for maneuvering.
On occasion, students in nearby classrooms peer out to catch a glimpse of the still-novel sight of a drone hovering inside their high school.
One of Stanley’s students, Bryan Plaskett, 16, a junior, dreams of becoming a Navy pilot, just like his uncle who is now a commercial pilot.
Operating the drone and listening to Stanley in class gave Plaskett the idea that flying doesn’t necessarily mean climbing inside the aircraft.
“I didn’t know there was so much unmanned aircraft,” he said “That’s a possibility now.”