Incorporating a drone into your STEM program is certain to provide not just fodder for your “Teacher of the Year” application, but it’s been proven to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
A drone is a way to teach real-world examples of coding in action. A drone can demonstrate principles of flight and physics. A drone is a way to teach building robotics. And drones go beyond those traditional fields, and into other areas of schools, too.
Environmental science classes can use drones to get aerial views of the environments they’re learning about. Astronomy classes can use multiple drones to create models of the solar systems. Photography and art classes can use drones to actually create their products. And yes, business classrooms can use drones to teach about entrepreneurship (check out what the Girl Scouts did with their cookie delivery drone!).
But with so many drones out there, which should you buy?
The best overall drone for STEM program drone education: The Tello drone by Ryze and DJI
The Tello drone is a $99, kid-friendly drone that combines DJI flight technology and an Intel processor to create a budget camera drone that also can be used to teach newbies the basics of programming.
It’s a great little drone that offers a low-cost introduction to not just flying and shooting videos, but also how to use drones how to code.
Since it’s made in part by DJI, it’s incredibly-high quality. It’s durable, meaning it is able to withstand dozens of tiny hands trying to grab it, and plenty more crashes.
It’s also a great tool for an intro to programming course. The Tello drone includes the Scratch coding platform, which is a programming language targeted at children. Essentially, you can program the drone to fly certain directions based on the “code” you have written.
The drone wins as best overall STEM drone in large part due to its price tag. For $99, you’re getting a camera, a built-in coding program, and an easy-to-fly drone, all in one durable package. The only reason you would want to skip this drone is if you’re looking to build something yourself.
The Tello drone, which weighs just 80 grams, can fly for 13 minutes and shoot 5 megapixel photos. For context, DJI’s next-smallest drone, the DJI Spark, weighs 300 grams, can fly for 16 minutes and shoots 12 megapixel photos. The drone doesn’t come with an RC transmitter, but can be controlled via a mobile app (or an external one can be purchased separately).
- Can you build it yourself? No
- Can you use it to learn how to code? Yes
- Does it have a camera? Yes
- Is it easy to fly? Yes
Check out my full review of the DJI Tello drone here.
The best drone for learning to build and code (if you’re on a tight budget): Raspberry Pi Drone Kit
The Raspberry Pi drone kit from Drone Dojo is the most comprehensive training tool you could possible find for learning how to build a drone and program it using Raspberry Pi, which is a popular line of small, single-board computers about the size of a credit card used among STEM classrooms and even small businesses.
The $900 Raspberry Pi drone kit is pricey but well worth it for what you get. Included is all the supplies you need (including the Raspberry Pi 4B, Pixhawk Flight Controller, Drone Frame, RC Transmitter and Receiver and more) as well as video tutorials teaching you how to put them together.
If you have the pieces to build your own drone and don’t necessarily need the kit, Drone Dojo also offers a standalone video course called “How to build a Raspberry Pi drone” which is just $100.
One note: this is for advanced STEM programs, not young children.
Can you build it yourself? Yes
Can you use it to learn how to code? Yes
Does it have a camera? No
The best drone for learning to build and code (if you’re on a tight budget): The Flybrix LEGO drone
While not nearly as good of a learning experience (or flying experience) as the Drone Dojo Raspberry Pi drone kit, this one is at least a lot more affordable.
The Flybrix LEGO drone is a kit that consists of LEGOs coupled with other parts you’ll need to build a drone, such as motors, batteries, the receiver and for an additional fee, an RC transmitter.
You build the drone yourself, and you can even program it to fly itself — otherwise you can control its flight via a smartphone or RC transmitter. Keep in mind that, since the drone is made of LEGOs, it’s not easy to fly (ahem, it’s easy to crash). And since it’s made of LEGOs, the crash will likely result in the drone falling apart, forcing you to rebuild it.
If you’re looking for something to primarily fly, skip this one. But if you’re looking for something to build and code, listen up.
Younger kids can use an app to learn computer science basics. That coupled with a Chrome extension allowing smaller pilots to adjust settings and motor tune can be a great computer lesson for elementary or jr. high classes. They can also use the drone itself as a basic circuit class (you’ll have to plug the motors into the right side of the preprogrammed board to prevent it from going the wrong way) or a basic physics class (put the propellers on the right way, or your drone will spin out of control).
But this drone has legs even among high-level high school and college classes, thanks to Flybrix’s brain. It’s an Arduino-compatible, 96Mhz ARM® Cortex-M4 processor that includes a barometer, a magnetometer, several indicator LEDs, ADC converters, SD card slot, bluetooth, and capabilities to add Wi-Fi and GPS modules, and its code is open-source. That leaves tons of opportunities for higher-level engineers to innovate on this LEGO platform.
At $189, it may be harder to justify for classes looking to have a seamless flying experience than the DJI Tello. But if you’re looking for something you can build (or build on), the Flybrix LEGO drone offers far more creative possibilities.
- Can you build it yourself? Yes
- Can you use it to learn how to code? Yes
- Does it have a camera? No
- Is it easy to fly? No
Check out my full review of the Flybrix LEGO drone here.
Alternative choices for drones in the classrooms
For teachers who are on a budget but are willing to put in a lot of their own grunt work, you could get away with better drones at a lower price tag.
If you’re ready to cobble together your own drone using separately purchased frames, motors, power distribution boards, etc., you could certainly build a great drone for less than $99.
If you’re looking for a drone with a camera that’s easy to fly (and don’t need the coding/building component), you could also get away with buying a “toy” drone for less than $50. Toy drones like TDR’s Spider Stunt Quadcopter ($39.99) are highly durable (aka crashproof) and fairly easy to fly, making them a great choice if your pure goal is teaching students how to fly drones.
How teachers can save money on drones
DJI’s Education discount can save you 10%: The DJI Educational Discount is a programming allowing anyone with a “.edu” email address to get a coupon code (typically a 10% discount) on a select group of items from its online site. Simply fill out DJI’s online form, wait patiently, and you’ll receive your invite.
DJI’s Better-With-Drones discount for non-profits can save 10%: If you teach STEM through a non-profit and don’t have a “.edu” address”, take advantage of DJI’s Better With Drones Discount program. Fill out the form on DJI’s website here, and when your application has been approved, DJI will send you a discount code, typically also 10% off.
Look for scholarships: This one is more likely to help students than teachers, but it’s worth passing on. There are a variety of scholarship programs out there that offer to help cover the costs of things like online Part 107 training courses, the exam fee to take the FAA’s Remote Pilot Certification test, or covering general costs in the form of cold, hard cash.
Happy flying, and happy STEM program teaching!