At the Hapuna Rough Water Swim Saturday, an eye in the sky hovered hundreds of feet above, watching as nearly 300 participants headed out for the one-mile race.
For those stuck on the shore, following the race was a difficult experience, trying to catch a glimpse of a familiar swim cap through the splashing water. But recent Hawaii Preparatory Academy graduates Hiro Ueno and Bo Bleckel had front row seats to the action.
Ueno controlled the drone from shore, with live video being instantly transmitted back to a pair of goggles.
“We see exactly what it sees. That first person view is incredible,” said Ueno. “It can sometimes be a bit disorienting, but I think our biggest opposition is the wind.”
Hapuna Rough Water Swim Race Director Mark Noetzel — who is also a dean at HPA — was glad to have the duo and their drone on-site for the event.
“It’s pretty cool because it gives us such a different perspective,” said Noetzel. “As a swimmer you are surrounded by water and have no idea where you are in the layout of the scene around you. It gives us an opportunity to show the swimmers how it actually looks.”
The use of drones to film with a unique aerial perspective is nothing new. Incredible surf videos have been shot on Oahu’s North Shore with the flying cameras, and unmanned aerial vehicles could even be seen flying overhead at the Ironman World Championship last October.
Bleckel and Ueno are among the HPA students who work with the school’s Energy Lab. The lab functions as a zero-net-energy, fully sustainable building with the goal of educating the next generation of students in the understanding of environmentally conscious, sustainable living systems. The research is funded by grants and donations.
The 6,112-square-foot Energy Lab opened in January 2010. In April 2011, the International Living Building Institute described the Energy Lab as “the world’s greenest K-12 school building” in its announcement of the Energy Lab’s Living Building Challenge certification.
The Energy Lab, which is also the first building in Hawaii to achieve LEED Platinum certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Schools 2.0 rating system, has been recognized with numerous awards for design, engineering, integrated development and building/technology.
“The Energy Lab is a creative crucible for innovative students to have access to emerging technologies and tools,” said Bill Wiecking, Energy Lab director. “This learning space enables autonomy, mastery and sense of purpose in our students, which are hallmarks of successful, creative people.”
With the drones, the students are trying to knock off the negative connotations associated with the flying machines by finding new and exciting applications.
The projects include using the drones to help farmers with land survey projects, mapping hard to reach or previously unreachable parts of the island, and giving virtual reality tours.
“On campus we use the drones for inspecting wind power and solar panels, places that would be very hard to get to,” said Wiecking. “You can also do fly-overs of places that would take hours or days to hike to in just half an hour.”
Wiecking also noted many of the students had already been employed this summer by local farmers to have the drones inspect their land.
“A lot of farmers cannot afford to hire a helicopter to fly over for a land survey, but they can afford a drone,” said Wiecking.
Ueno said he started flying the drones six month ago, and has been involved in a project that involves using the drones to set up a mobile wireless network that could be deployed in the field, or in times of disaster.
One of the more ambitious Energy Lab projects is using brainwaves to control the drones. HPA students presented the research at the Macworld/iWorld Conference in 2013, stunning the audience.
Wiecking also said the lab plans to acquire Oculus Rift virtual reality headset this week and attempt to integrate it into the drone projects.
Drones are a divisive topic, and Wiecking lists three main factors he believes have given drones a bad reputation: military, privacy and safety.
Type “drone” into a search engine and the results will likely be littered with military drone stories. While the military does use drones for various activities, it is a wholly different application than what Wiecking and his students are dealing with.
Privacy has also been a hot-button topic when it comes to drones, leaving many feeling vulnerable that the tiny aircraft could follow and report their every move.
An example of this surfaced Sunday, when FIFA announced they would investigate the French national team’s claims that a drone spied on their training at the World Cup.
“Apparently drones are used more and more,” French coach Didier Deschamps told media sources. “We don’t want any intrusion into our privacy. It’s very hard to fight this these days.”
Wiecking acknowledged that using the drones to invade a person’s privacy is a very real thing, but said for the majority of the population, it’s simply not the objective.
“You may hear that they are a nuisance, too loud, or people are using them to spy on neighbors and things like that,” said Wiecking. “Those seem like very fringe things to me. There are plenty of people using drones for very useful purposes.”
Lastly, addressing the concerns of safety, Wiecking assured he and his students stay well within the parameters set forth by the FAA. Wiecking said the students have only one crash on record, and the drone was quickly swooped up and stolen.
“We had seen the videos on the internet, and were interested,” said Ueno. “One day it showed up at the Energy Lab and we have been learning, upgrading and evolving our techniques ever since.”
Wiecking agreed that having the technology readily available is half the battle.
“Having these things available for students makes a difference. If you give kids, who are serious about it, the tools and challenge them to come up with new ideas, they take off with it. Our biggest challenge is keeping up with the kids.”