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Innovative drone program helps youth soar

Mark Parker



SOFWOLF youth participated in a search and rescue exercise with the U.S. Coast Guard last year. Photos provided.

A St. Petersburg nonprofit once focused on helping children who lost a parent in combat is now offering its drone and career-skill program to underserved students throughout the area.

SOFWOLF is a combined acronym for Special Operations Forces and Warrior Outdoor Leadership for the Future. Army veteran Michael Vaughn, chairman, and Sara Moola, executive director, launched the organization in Utah in 2012.

The husband-and-wife duo moved the organization to St. Pete in 2019, and SOFWOLF is now the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub’s nonprofit anchor. Establishing a new base in St. Petersburg’s Innovation District was fitting since Moola rewrote the curriculum during the pandemic to better align with in-demand STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skill sets.

What started as a way to give back to the nation’s Gold Star community – those with a family member killed in action – is now leveraging gaming, robotics and drones to advance equitable education. The Pinellas Community Foundation recently aided that mission with a $50,000 grant to purchase a mobile command post.

“The training program really works to give workforce development skills to the youth that isn’t just empty,” Vaughn explained. “They get a certification, and we are also building mentorship relationships to find internships and careers for students.”

The outdoor training aspect began with SOF veterans providing leadership skills and has since included some of the area’s most prominent organizations. The youth, aged 16 to 21, assisted U.S. Coast Guard on a search and rescue training exercise last year.

Moola said the kids thought they would show off their flying skills, but an alarm sounded, and they hopped on Coast Guard boats and used their drones to help find a missing body. “Fortunately, it was a dummy,” she added with a laugh.

SOFWOLF participants will build their drones “from scratch” this year.

In addition, participants helped the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science collect red tide data. Drone cameras captured surface conditions while a special attachment collected water samples.

“This year, they’re building (drones) from scratch,” Moola said. “The purely prototypical drones that engineers use to augment and try out new things.”

She added that creating a 3-D-printed claw to retrieve and drop things is a key aspect of this year’s programming. Vaughn coordinates with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to provide testing sites and the necessary curriculum for commercial flight certifications.

“Then they can actually go and work for people,” Vaughn said. “You look on the news, and everything’s becoming autonomous. Drones are going to be used in every part of industry. Of course, the government’s been using it for a while now.”

SOFWOLF is now working with local law enforcement agencies and various other first responders on training exercises. Moola said they are happy to work with the children and noted the importance of building relationships and trust between the two groups.

The organization is also partnering with Pinellas County Schools and city officials on program expansion to ensure underserved youth can seize the opportunities. In 2022, Lakewood High School teachers selected students from their robotics course to help facilitate the drone initiative.

Those youth will now help select classmates to participate in this year’s summer program.

SOFWOLF’s leaders also hope to collaborate with Richard Prince, director of the Enoch Davis Resource Center’s Cohort of Champions. That program typically provides workforce development skills to younger South St. Pete students.

Vaughn called the initiative “amazing” and said Price “has more energy than anybody I’ve ever met.” He wants to create a pipeline for youth interested in drones so they can continue that pursuit throughout high school.

“And then they’re old enough to … participate as teams and fly in these scenarios,” Vaughn said. “To work with first responders –  and you have to be 16 to get the (FAA) license.”

Moola explained the mobile command unit would help them achieve that goal. She called the addition a “force multiplier” that enables SOFWOLF to bolster partnerships with the city’s parks and recreation department and various after-school career readiness programs.

“We’ve got to have some in-classroom work,” Vaughn said. “But the real meat of this is the application of those skillsets.”

A representative from Polestar, a defense contractor also based in the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub, leads a presentation to SOFWOLF students.

He added that city and county officials increasingly use drones for infrastructure inspections, saving valuable resources. That critical infrastructure will soon exist in the metaverse.

SOFWOLF is working to create a digital overlay of the city to help students identify and report problem scenarios before using that knowledge in the real world. The metaverse initiative would capitalize on the demographic’s gaming propensity and generate simulations based on real-time data.

SOFWOLF’s “intensive” week-long summer program is free. Vaughn said they rely on donations and their personal bank accounts to fly Gold Star youth into St. Petersburg.

They also absorb lodging and certification costs, and he credited the Patriot Foundation for helping ensure the kids “have no expenses at all.”

The summer program begins May 26, and the application window recently closed. However, Vaughn said they would try accommodating any interested local youth at the USF St. Petersburg campus.

Schuyler Moore, U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) young – and first – chief technology officer, will participate.

Moola said they encourage participants to come back and serve as relatable mentors. Younger facilitators include someone who overcame challenges to become a rocket engineer for Blue Origin and another that is an autonomous systems engineer for Lockheed Martin’s famed Skunk Works division.

“The internships and the mentoring open the door,” Vaughn said. “The kids start to believe in themselves, and they see opportunities where before, their opportunity was on whatever block or street they live on.”

For more information on SOFWOLF, visit the website here.





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    Donna Kostreva

    April 20, 2023at6:57 pm


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