Davis Drone Academy returns to campus, ready to fly

High school students wearing face coverings performing camp activities, including soldering drone parts, reaching out toward a hovering drone and listening to an instructor around a table.
Photos by Nate Metzler

CITRIS staff lead STEM outreach program for underrepresented Sacramento-area high school students for fourth consecutive year.

After a shift to virtual sessions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UC Davis Drone Academy resumed in-person activities Aug. 2–6. The five-day camp, which launched to rave reviews in 2018, welcomed 14 students from 12 high schools in the Sacramento region. Nate Metzler, CITRIS at UC Davis program manager and licensed pilot, again served as the academy’s director.

A student with long dark hair wearing a face mask pilots a mini-drone using a handset.

This year, the academy was held at the UC Davis International Center. The building’s sizable auditorium served as a comfortable space for lessons and drone assembly projects, and the adjacent outdoor commons offered a safe arena for flight tests.

Open to ninth through 12th graders from underrepresented backgrounds, the Drone Academy uses uncrewed aircraft systems, aka UASs or micro-drones, to teach principles of aviation and engineering. The camp is supported by a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration’s ASSURE Center of Excellence and operated in partnership with the UC Davis Early Academy Outreach Program.

A student with short dark hair wairing a facemask holds a balsa wood glider in a field.

Campers learned about aviation history, basic aerodynamics and the various applications of drones in society through brief lectures led by a team of seven undergraduate and graduate student instructors from UC Davis and Sacramento State University. Researchers from nearby engineering laboratories and members of the campus drone club gave a show-and-tell presentation, highlighting drones and sensors used in university research, and guest speakers from aerospace companies shared insight into real-world careers in aviation.

An expanded curriculum for 2021 also explored flight systems and wing design inspired by living organisms. Campers examined the physiology of birds, with West Coast Falconry providing live raptor flight demonstrations. To investigate the aerial locomotion of insects, the students took a trip to the R.M. Bohart Museum of Entomology and got up close and personal with beetles, dragonflies and other bugs.

The UC Davis Drone Academy is considering holding a mini-camp during the upcoming winter break and looks forward to continuing its successful STEM outreach through at least 2023.

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