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Fairmont State, then Saturn? Drone competition next week has out-of-this-world expectations

FAIRMONT — This ain’t your dad’s drone.

In other words, the students flying them next weekend at Fairmont State University won’t be using the buzzing crafts for aerial shots of pleasant, pastoral scenery — or literal, lofty perspectives of houses for the real estate ad.

The school is hosting the 2024 Northeast Regional Championship for the Aerial Drone Competition.

That’s the name of the national network of lighter-than-air events designed to foster teamwork and hands-on learning for students from 5th grade to their senior year of high school.

A total of 60 teams will touch down on the Fairmont campus — then take off again — for the competition, which is May 17-18.

You’d need to file a flight plan to chart their home bases.

Connecticut and Delaware.

The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia (don’t forget West Virginia).

Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York State.

Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and drone-sized Rhode Island.

It isn’t just about joystick dexterity, though student teams will pilot their drones across a compact course, where they’ll negotiate tight turns and just-enough-room archways for the fly-through.

During the autonomous portion of the proceedings, they’ll use their computer-coding to ensure safe flying of their drones — without the aid of human hands and human brains steering them through confined airspace.

And on one quadrant of the course, they’ll fly “blind.”

That is, barricades will prevent the pilots from seeing where they’re going, as they navigate an obstacle while relying solely on other teammates who will be their eyes and instruments for them, during the exercise.

There’s also an extraterrestrial tie-in: The teamwork components of the championship are inspired by the real-world workings — make that, out-of-this-world workings — of NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission.

“Dragonfly” is the name of the rotorcraft-lander scientists and engineers with the agency hope to touch down on Titan, which is one of Saturn’s moons.

Work on the mission, in fact, is being done at NASA’s Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility — or, IV&V, as it’s known in industry parlance — which is right down the road from Fairmont State in the I-79 Technology Park.

Tim Leuliette, the NASA program manager for the Dragonfly project, will give keynote remarks and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will provide a flight demonstration of a Dragonfly prototype.

The West Virginia Robotics Alliance is hosting the regional championship, which means yet another Fairmont-NASA plotting of the course. The alliance is overseen by Education Resource Center housed at the IV&V facility in the local tech park.

Todd Ensign, an IV&V program manager and Fairmont State professor who helped organize the championship, said he wants competitors coming away from their north-central West Virginia weekend with their heads in the clouds — and beyond.

“We hope to inspire the next generation who will be designing, building and programming the extraterrestrial drones for Dragonfly and other missions,” Ensign said.

He also likes Fairmont State is also part of the flight plan for the region’s burgeoning aviation industry.

Pierpont Community and Technical College, a sister institution to Fairmont State, is known for its aviation tech program.

A proposed 70,000-square-foot maintenance-training facility for Pierpont is set for construction at the North Central West Virginia Airport, in neighboring Harrison County.

“You don’t have to leave the area for training if you want to work in the industry,” Ensign told The Dominion Post previously.

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