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April 17, 2014

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JROTC Cadets Build
Their Own Drones

Sun Photo By Sarah R. Gregory

Greeneville High School Drone Crew member Dennis Smith explains to members of the Greeneville

Noon Exchange Club how a smaller drone built by Junior ROTC cadets works.

Originally published: 2014-02-08 07:15:50
Last modified: 2014-02-08 07:19:37



Faced with a significant cut in federal funding for Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) programs and the looming threat of the U.S. Air Force's pulling support for such programs, cadets in Greeneville High School's JROTC decided to "do something big" to bring in new recruits and impress inspectors.

So they built two drones.

Tuesday, members of the GHS Drone Crew and their leader, Senior Aerospace Science Instructor Lt. Col. Galen Kirchmeier, gave a presentation about their program and drone projects to members of the Greeneville Exchange Club.

The group explained not only how they built the sophisticated drone equipment but also how the Junior ROTC program has faced challenges nationwide and how they plan to continue building support for the local unit.


Knowing the program would face funding cuts and tough inspections, Kirchmeier said, "We thought, 'This year we need to do something big'" since the Air Force "is in mode to shut down" Junior ROTC units nationwide.

Working together, cadets and their instructors developed plans to build a working drone and received a $3,000 donation from Mosheim-based and veteran-owned TEVET to support the project.

However, in the fall, the federal shutdown resulted in an initial budget of zero dollars for the Junior ROTC program this school year.

That loss of basic operating funds prompted the group to request that TEVET's donation be used instead to keep the GHS unit running.

After an article appeared in the Education section of The Greeneville Sun explaining the Junior ROTC program's severe funding challenges, Kirchmeier said, additional businesses and individuals stepped up to make donations.

"They gave us enough money to operate the unit," he said. He explained that TEVET's donation could then be used for the purpose for which it was originally intended -- construction of a drone.


During the Exchange Club's lunch meeting Tuesday, cadets showed the two drone units they built and a brief video to help explain the school's drone program.

Working together with their instructors, students built two drones -- a small unit used for flight training and a larger unit capable of staying in the air up to half an hour.

Senior Mark Patrick, the squad's drone engineer, was instrumental in the project as he has designed seven drones, Kirchmeier said.

With Patrick's knowledge of parts suppliers from his past projects, the larger unit, which would cost as much as $16,000 to purchase, was built for approximately $2,300, Kirchmeier added.


Patrick explained some technical aspects of the larger drone to Exchange Club members, and answered a few questions about the unit's capabilities.

The drone can stay in the air for almost 30 minutes and has a control range of nearly 26 miles, Patrick said, noting, however, that the cadets do not fly the drone such a distance.

He said the craft has four motors, with propellers that spin at approximately 10,000 revolutions per minute (RPM).

Such high RPM is needed for lift, he said, because the drone lacks wing surface area that other types of aircraft typically have.

A microprocessor-controlled computer calculates the motor speeds needed to spin the propellers to move as the operator directs.

It's also stocked with other high-tech tools, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, a compass and a barometer, and is powered by six-cell 24-volt lithium polymer batteries.

Patrick explained that the drone is fully equipped with auto-pilot mechanisms in the event of a loss of the control signal.

In the event the control signal is lost, the craft will fly back to its home base and wait for the signal to return, or will land itself.


The drone is also equipped with a small camera that transmits live video to a ground station.

A second, larger "Go Pro" camera that records high definition video allows the crew to film and review their flights.

That camera is affixed to a stabilizer that focuses and levels the camera's lens on the ground below.

A video played for Exchange Club members showed a view of Greeneville High School's Burley Stadium taken during a drone flight.


After hearing about the drone, Exchange Club members were also shown the smaller drone, which is used as a practice unit.

Dennis Smith, a cadet who is also training as a pilot and is scheduled to receive his pilot's license in August, explained that students have to learn through other means before they can operate the sophisticated drone equipment.

Smith explained that, to be on the Drone Crew, cadets must start in the RC Flight Club, flying remote-controlled aircraft.

From there, students learn to fly using a computer simulator, and must take a difficult test before moving on to fly the drone units.

After proving their skills with the smaller drone, cadets move up to learn to fly the larger unit, he said.


Despite the impressive accomplishments of the cadets, Greeneville's Junior ROTC program -- like others nationwide -- is in danger.

After the federal shutdown ended, Kirchmeier said, some funding for Junior ROTC was restored, but the budget was approximately half of what it had been before.

Additionally, changes in rules on the national level created stringent new requirements -- especially pertaining to class size -- that put many programs in jeopardy and have shut many others down, Kirchmeier said.

Essentially, he explained, students in the JROTC program would only count as participating once, even if they took the program during both terms in a school year.

A new requirement that at least 10 percent of the student body be enrolled in the program was also a challenge.

It meant that a total of at least 85 students would be needed to maintain GHS's program since the school has about 850 students.

"It [that new rule] basically doubled -- almost tripled -- the requirement," Kirchmeier said.

"This year, we will hit 86 new students," he said.

But the program needs to bring in still more students, he added.

"I've got a lot of seniors leaving," he explained. "I've got to get 40 freshmen in next year, or the inspectors will see the numbers and we're gone."


To attract the number of incoming freshmen needed to maintain the program's success, senior cadets and other upperclassmen have developed a plan to generate interest in the JROTC program.

The idea: spend time with Greeneville Middle School (GMS) eighth-graders to show off all the "cool" aspects of JROTC -- and do it on the same day they register for their freshman-year classes.

So on Feb. 11, JROTC students will travel to GMS and spend an hour-and-a-half talking about the program with eighth-graders.

Later that day, eighth-grade students will register for their freshman classes at GHS, and the cadets hope ROTC will be fresh in their minds.

Matt Patterson, squadron commander for this term, explained to Exchange Club members that ROTC members have spoken with middle school students in the past, but this year, the members are going all out.

"The most important thing this year for us is to get new cadets in our program," Patterson said.


"The principal at Greeneville Middle School has given us an excellent opportunity to have all afternoon with the eighth-graders," he said. "We're going to bring everything we have."

The goal is to show that JROTC is about more than being a color guard at parades or firing special cannons when the Green Devils score in a football game.

Basically, Patterson said, all the general public knows about JROTC "is that we have a cannon, and we hold some flags."

But when the cadets travel to GMS to talk about their program, they'll explain numerous aspects that most people likely aren't aware of, he said.

Eighth-graders will learn about the Marksmanship Team, Radio Control Flight Team, the drones and Drone Crew, cannon and Cannon Crew, armed and unarmed Drill Teams, Saber Team, Kitty Hawk Academic Honor Society and more.

"We're going to bring everything we can and have all afternoon to try to get as much interest with these upcoming freshmen that we possibly can," Patterson said.

Not only will the cadets speak to eighth-graders the afternoon prior to the evening they register for classes, but also the cadets will also be nearby at GHS that evening while the students register.

"We're kind of not going to give them an option to consider it," Patterson joked.

"We're going to show them all kind of fun stuff we do," he added, including a "huge paintball match" cadets attend, running military-style objectives as a team, and how they can get their pilot's license through ROTC.

While the cadets hope to recruit the new freshmen they need to maintain federal support for the Junior ROTC program at GHS, one thing is certain, Kirchmeier said: "We're still looking at the future," and more plans are in the works.

For more information and stories, see The Greeneville Sun.

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