Even in sunny-and-seventy SoCal, motivating kids to put down devices and enjoy the great outdoors can be nigh on impossible. One thing that might lure them out is blasting rockets into space, or sending drones on a flight mission. Becoming a mini-pilot or mission control specialist is less complicated than you might think, once you've figured out where to fly without upsetting local law enforcement. We've collected all the info you need below to get on a flight path. Getting airborne is not as pricey as it once was, and best of all? Rockets and drones can inspire budding engineers to extend their STEM wings.
Model rockets and drones let kids experience physics in action but are distinctly different. Try both kinds of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) if you get a chance. Not sure which one is right for your kid? Consider the following when choosing a UAV:
- If your kids are itching to reach the highest of heights, rockets are the way to go. The Colorado-based company Estes makes a wide range of models for all experience levels, and they're widely available online. Look out for the "ready to fly" models that come with everything you need to get started, including rocket motors.
- If the kids want to test their piloting skills, drones are a good choice and provide potentially longer flights than rockets do. There are dozens of makes and models, but Quadcopters is an affordable place to start. Drones are generally more expensive than rockets, but starter quads can be found for under $50. If the force is strong with you and your wee ones, Star Wars drones can be found at most big-box retailers.
Launching rockets can be equally fun for parents and kids.
Where to Go
Beyond your own backyard, finding a place to practice this hobby is probably the most daunting part of turning flight dreams into sky-high adventures. It may not be immediately obvious, but those model rockets go pretty darn high, right into commercial airspace if you're not careful. The places that might first spring to mind to try (the beach, local parks, a nearby parking lot) are generally not safe in a metropolis like ours and can result in a heavy fine. LA has designated that launch sites require permission from property owners and local fire authorities; finding an appropriate launch spot takes a little more planning than an afternoon run to the playground.
The best opportunity to legally launch rockets in the LA area is a biweekly group launch organized by Southern California Rocket Association (a local chapter of NAR) at the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area in Irwindale on the first Saturday and third Sunday of most months. For more rocket resources, visit The National Association of Rocketry (NAR) and Friends of Amateur Rocketry (FAR).
Private, not paparazzi-operated drones are less restricted, but still not allowed in state parks. For FAA-sanctioned fun, the easiest approach can be to join a club and keep an eye out for organized events. The Lot H field at Pasadena's Rose Bowl hosts a wide variety of drones hovering overhead on most Saturdays around 10am. This location can provide a great introduction to the world of UAVs and an opportunity to speak to some experienced pilots. Before you go, visit the Rose Bowl calendar and make sure it’s not a game or event day.
LA/OC Drone User Group is an active drone club which offers a lot of information, including where and where not to fly.
Flying either rockets or drones is appropriate for ages 5 and up. However, both require close adult supervision and teamwork to ensure a safe launch or flight.
Photo by Ken LaRock/U.S. Air Force