How do we create a map and find a way to get where we want to go? A trip to the Beaver County Airport became a lesson in the history of navigation, the importance of collision alerts, and the technology of mapping a way there and back again. Second and third grade Baden Academy Media Lab students visited the airport this week, getting a tour of the air traffic control tower and the Air Heritage museum. The trip was an extension of our lab unit on DED Reckoning, the method of robotic mapping our Groma robots use. (DED or dead reckoning starts from a home base and followings compass bearings that are oriented from home base – the further you travel, the more mistakes you make!)
We discovered a screen similar to our mission command program, one that marked north and south and a unit circle. Our tour guide, Charlie, welcomed us up the four flights of stairs reaching to the tower and began to explain the air traffic controller screen that filled the center of the displays. He focused our attention on three helicopters from the local television stations leaving the scene of a morning accident and taught us how to interpret some of the shorthand.
A red “CA” appeared and the students’ concerned voices listened to Charlie’s explanation of a collision alert. We talked about the programming behind the alert system. What would the computer need to calculate? Do you think that the airplane has one also?
Two planes seemed to collide on the screen and one of the girl’s asked if they just crashed. Charlie explained altitude. This was a new sensor we hadn’t talked about yet. Kids listened to explanations of air pressure to understand altitude, and how local barometric pressure affects the “indicated” altitude readings on a plane’s altimeter and needs reset for different air spaces and control towers. Charlie described the radar tower at the Pittsburgh International Airport and how it used sound waves to calculate the positions of planes in the air.
The tower serves as an educational setting for CCBC’s Air Traffic Control Terminal program and is a fully functioning tower in collaboration with the FAA. Kids learned about the career path to Associate Degree in Air Traffic Control, but also saw behind the screens to the programming of the equipment and the development of more sophisticated sensors. We asked Charlie about dead reckoning and he told us stories of the earliest days of flight when pilots would take a compass bearing and look for beacon fires or landmarks that would tell them where they needed to turn. It served as a reminder to the types of sensors we study with robotics: line of sight (from the historical invention of an astrolabe to our modern light sensors that can react to color), measurement (from the tallow dropped into water by sailors to our sonic sensors (and radar sensors) that bounce radio waves of objects), and direction (the four corners and degrees of rotation of a magnetic compass reading and the air pressure sensor needed to measure altitude). Next year we’ll study how GPS (the global positioning system) works!
Our next stop was the Air Heritage Museum on the other side of the airport. This working museum had many reconstruction projects out for the kids to look at as well as a sampling from aeronautical history. Our tour guide, Ralph, a veteran and volunteer, patiently steered us through as we determined our own navigation limits (stay within a holding pattern of a 10 foot radius of Ralph, watch our ground speeds, stay in a line of sight, watch our altitude ducking under wings, and keep chatter to a minimum to hear instructions from our flight controller Ralph…).
We learned about engines. One of the 3rd graders started naming the turbine and spark plugs (recognized from model building). We saw the difference between wings made with steel, aluminum, and carbon fiber. The most fascinating to me was the nylon and butyrate dope for adhesive. A high point for the kids was stepping inside C-123K Provider cargo plane from World War II with seats for paratroopers and a rear open hatch from which they would jump thousands of feet to do battle (the paratroopers not the kids!). Everyone took a turn sitting in a Cessna cockpit and admiring the replica of the Wright Brothers 1903 flyer. One of the girls could have sworn that flight was 1000 years old, but Ralph set her strait!
Special thanks are extended to the Baden Academy Charter School for transportation, the CCBC Air Traffic Control school, and volunteers at the Air Heritage Museum. The day was gorgeous with a blue sky and the kids were enraptured by the small planes practicing touch and go’s on the runway, touching down before building speed and taking off again. The kids stood on tiptoes and held their breath as each place slipped the surly bonds of Earth and climbed sunward to dance in the skies.
I invite you to virtually visit and try out with your kids the GEFS free, online flight simulator based on Google Earth. Have fun flying a plane in beautiful sceneries and doing your own touch and go’s on 30, 000 runways. There is even a chance for multiplayer flight and chat!
A second challenge is for parents to keep current on news, particularly the leaps in aviation technology that are happening in India and China. Your children are growing up in a world with engineering graduates from across the globe, also fluent in English, capable of designing and testing 5th generation fighter jets. The U.S. need for students trained in science, math, engineering and technology is growing, and yet our students are falling behind in those same subjects by the eighth grade. We have an infrastructure capable of supporting growth, entrepreneurship, and the strength needed to stand up for justice. Let us work together to Grow a Generation passionate about building these skills and using them to build a more peaceful and beautiful world.
Is your child passionate about aviation? Visit the Grow a Generation page for project ideas.