UC Davis launches Drone Academy for high schoolers

UC Davis launches Drone Academy for high-schoolers

by Saemmool Lee

UC Davis launched its inaugural Summer Drone Academy for 10th and 11th graders in the Sacramento region in July. The weeklong program was co-sponsored by CITRIS and the Banatao Institute, the UC Davis Early Academic Outreach Program (EAOP), and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) ASSURE Program. Instructors offered the high-schoolers simulated mission training with recreational mini-drones to learn about emerging Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) technologies. The 15 students also participated in hands-on teamwork challenges and flying competitions.

“The goal is recruiting students who might not otherwise go into STEM education,” says Susan Ustin, professor of Department of Land, Air and Water Resources at UC Davis, the program’s faculty sponsor in partnership with the FAA ASSURE drone education program. “So, it’s a lot of socioeconomically disadvantaged students that wouldn’t necessarily get the encouragement to do this.”

CITRIS provided curriculum resources, including acquisition of the mini-drones and mission simulation equipment. Nathan Metzler, UC Davis CITRIS program manager and an FAA-licensed pilot, served as lead instructor, with a staff of eight student instructors from EAOP and UC Davis.

The students practiced basic flight maneuvers within netted areas before graduating to a series of obstacle and payload-simulation courses. Daily industry presentations were tied to real-world flying missions in the medical, package delivery, search, rescue, and drone professional photography industries.

“This camp has been particularly successful because the kids are very much engaged, their relationship with the instructors seemed very good, and they are interactive with the UAVs and focused,” says Diane Ford, program manager for FAA Center of Excellence STEM Outreach Program. “They could really manage the UAVs after a couple of days, even in blindfolds. That was very impressive for me because that takes skill.”

The goals of the academy are not only encouraging students to take STEM courses, but also exposing students to the college culture and helping students develop team work and leadership skills. “One of the other things that I was impressed by was that they teach skills that would support them in careers other than just STEM careers,” says Ford. “They are learning team-building and communications. That’s a big plus because they can still use those skills for whatever career goals they choose.”

After hosting Ford, Ustin has received approval from the FAA to conduct future workshops in support with CITRIS for both high school and university participants. The FAA also announced continuing funding for the academy through 2025.

“This academy was beneficial because it opened my eyes to new things and had me branch out to different fields of technology,” writes one academy student on a program evaluation form. “I was able to expand my horizons and try something new, which really helps me decide what I want to do in the future,” writes another.

For years CITRIS has funded UAS research initiatives by cross-campus faculty teams at UC campuses through the annual Seed Funding Program. CITRIS at UC Davis led a UAS Research Facility feasibility study beginning in 2015, while founding the campus student UAS and Drone Club. Many parallel strategic objectives emerged utilizing the CITRIS Tech for Social Good Program, and developing UAS applications for medical delivery, public and infrastructure safety, natural resource management, and agriculture sustainability.

View the photo gallery:

Photos by Adriel Olmos


For more information about CITRIS and the Banatao Institute at UC Davis, contact Nathan Metzler at npmetzler@ucdavis.edu.