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Posted: March 18, 2024

MISSION POSSIBLE: APS Students Shine in Aerial Drone Competition

Three Albuquerque teams qualify to move on to 2024 National JROTC All Service Aerial Drone Championship in Mississippi.

Students competing in Saturday's  Aerial Drone Competition at Albuquerque High.

Students competing in Saturday's Aerial Drone Competition at Albuquerque High.

As tournaments go, the Aerial Drone Competition held Saturday at Albuquerque High School was a formidable one, with students facing challenges like flying drones through an obstacle course without actually being able to see the course and even programming their drones to navigate the course autonomously.

While the competition was intense, students like Ciara Booqua-Natachu and Soo Lee, a La Cueva student who competed on the Albuquerque High team, tackled one obstacle at a time and put up strong performances. In the end, three Albuquerque Public Schools teams – one each from Albuquerque High, Atrisco Heritage Academy High, and Volcano Vista High – qualified for the national JROTC All Service Aerial Drone Championship in Mississippi. 

The Farmington High School Flyers team walked away with the top score in Saturday’s competition.

It was central New Mexico’s first REC Foundation Aerial Drone Tournament. The competition, which focuses on hands-on, student-centered learning, drew about 50 fifth- through 12th-grade students from throughout New Mexico, including Laguna, Kirtland, Mescalero, and Farmington. Among the participants were students with disabilities.

Albuquerque High physics teacher Valerie Kovach partnered with the REC Foundation to bring the tournament to Albuquerque. The event was held inside Albuquerque High’s gymnasium.

“Teams learn about drones, flight principles, programming, documentation, and communication skills while expanding their understanding and building interest in drone-related workforce and career opportunities,” event organizers said.

The competition showcases flying skills, collaborative teamwork, and problem-solving as teams unite to complete four missions.

In the teamwork mission, two drone teams work collaboratively for 90 seconds, scoring points by completing such tasks as clearing objects from certain areas and knocking down balls from the tops of pillars without knocking the pillars down. In the final 30 seconds, teams tackle the arduous Eclipse course, but there’s a twist. Once the drone enters the Eclipse, pilots aren’t able to see the course. They must instead navigate it with the help of visual observers as they fly their drones through two hoops, over a screen, under an arch, and over another arch.

In the piloting mission, team pilots have 60 seconds to fly under, through, and around objects as quickly and efficiently as possible, earning points for each task completed along the way. The autonomous flight mission forces participants to use their coding skills to program their drones to complete several tasks during an autonomous flight. Teams place their drone in the starting position, hit run on their program, and earn points for successfully completing each task.

The communication mission, meanwhile, calls for a different skill set altogether. During the competition, judges interview teams and give judge awards based on their communication skills and competition logbooks. Albuquerque High’s B team won the Judges Award for showing enthusiasm and spirit as well as continual growth throughout the day.

Central New Mexico College was on hand at Saturday’s competition to inform students about its drone certificate program, career opportunities in that field, and dual credit options.  

“To have a sport that’s related to skills needed right now for jobs that are emerging is awesome,” Kovach said.

For more information on  the aerial drone program at APS, email Valerie Kovach at