Colorado students build drone to help African National Park

Max Alger-Meyer and Nathan Lepore are not your typical high school seniors. They are not sitting back, choosing to cruise through the last six weeks of school.

"I really want to change the world, and I think Nathan feels the same way," Alger-Meyer said.

The two teenagers have been friends and robotics partners since eighth grade at Denver School of Science and Technology.

For their senior project, they have teamed up to build a drone.

"We have exactly zero experience building drones," Alger-Meyer said.

It was Alger-Meyer's idea to take on this ambitious project.

Alger-Meyer went with fellow DSST students to Africa last summer. They studied geology and entrepreneurship in poverty-stricken areas of Uganda and Rwanda.

"The students went over to listen about complex issues facing Africa and think about innovative approaches to help communities," Ryan Gundy, the Associate Director of the Denver-based, Global Livingston Institute, said.

Every year, GLI takes more than 150 students and community leaders from Colorado to East Africa on immersion experiences focused on education and job creation.

"Our mantra is 'listen, think and act,'" Gundy said.

Through GLI, Alger-Meyer visited Akagera National Park in Eastern Rwanda. He heard how the park has been heavily poached over the years. He thought about solutions. Now, he is taking action with Lepore.

"During the Rwandan genocide, attention was taken off of preserving the nature and preserving the parks," Lepore said. "When there were not active rangers patrolling the park, a lot of the indigenous people went back to their ways of old, hunting the animals in the park. Lions were big. Gazelles and zebras were also killed in large numbers."

"At Akagera National Park, they have this fenced off area with all the confiscated stuff they've taken from the poachers," Alger-Meyer said. "They have dozens of bicycles and motorcycles and snares. Seeing all that, and seeing the impact the anti-poaching efforts are having in the park, it was pretty meaningful."

Alger-Meyer said the park rangers like to use helicopters to look for poachers from above the 300,000 acres of the park. However, fuel is expensive.

"I thought they could use a drone for this, and it would be a lot cheaper and more efficient," Alger-Meyer said. "I came back to Denver and told Nathan 'We have to do something about this.'"

The teenagers had a lot of experience in building hardware and various kinds of mechanisms from the DSST Robotics Team but the electronics posed a bit of a learning curve.

There were countless acronyms associated with drone production they had to recognize. When ordering equipment, there were seemingly-endless amounts of mechanisms, motors and components to choose from.

"It's a learning curve, like we said, but we're enjoying it," Lepore said. "It's one of those things where you spend three hours researching stuff and not even feel like you're working."

"We finally think we're ready to put it all together," Alger-Meyer said.

Both teenagers admit this project blossomed into something they really weren't expecting.

'It's much more than just putting parts together and making something fly," Alger-Meyer said. "It's a lot more about making interactions and connections with people."

"Max and I are interested in entrepreneurship as a career path, pertaining to engineering," Lepore said. "We have spent far more time talking to people, sending emails and networking than the actual physical construction of the drone."

Lepore said they've gotten teh drone "off the ground a few times" but have a lot of fine-tuning to do.

Another group of DSST students heads back to Africa with the Global Livingston Institute in June. Alger-Meyer and Lepore would like to join them.

Alger-Meyer and Lepore are currently trying to raise money to fly to Rwanda and hand deliver their drone to Akagera National Park.

"When we took 75 students over last summer, at no point did we think a drone was going to be be part of our organization," GLI's Gundy said. "We're excited it is."

"We're both really passionate about engineering and we saw this as a good opportunity to build something cool but at the same time, actually have a global impact," Lepore said.

"We want to have a project that we can use to prepare ourselves so when we're older, we're just changing the world all the time," Alger-Meyer said.

Alger-Meyer and Lepore are working on deciding where they will attend college in the fall. Even if they choose separate schools, they're pretty sure they'll end up working together again someday.


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