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A drone program in northeast Ohio is taking off

A boy holds a drone in the palm of his hand. It's white and has four propellers and a neon blue light.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Preston Ficeti, a sophomore at McDonald High School in Trumbull County, holds a drone in the palm of his hand. He learned how to fly it last year by participating in a drone racing league.

Ohio has a strong history of flying. From the Wright brothers to John Glenn, it's been home to aviators for more than a century.

But these days, a newer technology is taking off in one Ohio county: drones.

The federal government recently allocated $650,000 to the Trumbull County Educational Service Center with the explicit purpose of teaching kids about the technology.

The money was earmarked for the county by last year’s Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

The county’s educational service center is using it to create a four-tiered program, complete with a new middle school curriculum on drones, expanded drone racing leagues, a pre-apprenticeship program for high schoolers and an unmanned air mobility center at the county’s career and technical school.

Students sit at rows of tables assembling drones with their classmates.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Students assemble drones in a classroom at the Trumbull County Educational Service Center.

“We want kids to experience this,” said Ed Mackiewicz, a curriculum and instruction supervisor with the center who’s spearheading the ‘dronepreneur’ initiative. “We want to make sure that everybody has an opportunity.”

Learning to fly

That’s music to the ears of sophomore Preston Ficeti. He learned how to fly a drone last year through his school’s drone racing program.

Inside a busy classroom, he expertly lands one in the palm of his hand.

“I learned how to do that last year,” he said, with a hint of pride. “I have a video on my phone of me hovering it right against my nose.”

Last year, Ficeti’s school was one of just a few in the area to have a drone racing team. Now, nearly every school in the county will have one.

The newly allotted money allows for each school to get drones, motors, batteries and even a 3D printer.

“They are literally going to build their own drones, and that's the idea."
Ed Mackiewicz

Students will get to use all of it.

“They are literally going to build their own drones,” Mackiewicz said. “And that’s the idea. Not only can they fly a drone, but now they know the ins and outs of a frame. They know how the motors run, how the propellers are going to operate on the drone, what types of batteries they need.”

Ficeti can’t wait. Already, he’s teaching his classmates how to navigate the controls.

“Go up slightly,” he directed, as the propellers started to whir. “A little more, get it off the ground.”

It takes a while to get the hang of, but he’s confident his team will be ready to go come competition time.

“Last year we would fly it around and we would do flips and barrel rolls and spins just because we could,” he said.

Drones in the workforce

But this ‘dronepreneur’ program isn’t all flips and barrel rolls. 

The program has the support of people like U.S. Representative David Joyce and former Congressman Tim Ryan who say drone competitions like this help get kids interested in STEM industries.

Three students stand side by side. The boy in the middle holds out a controller, which he's using to fly a drone.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Student Preston Ficeti uses a controller to operate a drone while his two classmates look on. Because of Trumbull County's 'dronepreneur' program, more students like them are learning how to use the technology.

Local educators have high hopes for what it could mean for the region a decade or two down the line.

“If we can get students involved at an early age, we can keep drones locally and keep them here in the United States,” Mackiewicz said, “and maybe get these students to grow up into careers of, let's manufacture the drone here.”

If students want to expand their experience beyond the drone racing league, they can join the pre-apprenticeship program, where they’ll earn their commercial drone license, intern with local businesses and graduate with an industry-recognized credential.

And the educational service center is working with the local career and technical school to implement an unmanned aircraft program there too.

Preston Ficeti has thought about signing up.

“There's a lot of things you can do with government jobs and flying drones,” he said. “You can even get your commercial plane license as well, so you could be a pilot doing it, too.”

And the opportunities don’t stop there. Realtors use drones to take aerial photos. So do reporters, videographers, farmers and local police departments.

All that’s years away for students like Ficeti.

Right now, he’s focused on the present — and that means training the rest of his drone racing team so they can blow away their competition.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.