The center developed the drone camp curriculum in collaboration with the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), the university’s Federal Aviation Administration-designated drone test site, and Wing, the Google sister company that launched the country’s first residential drone delivery service in Christiansburg in 2019.
Lester works with nonprofits, communities, and other partners to reach kids beyond the typical cohort that flocks to STEM camps. More than 60 percent of the students at the drone camp identified as Black or Hispanic. For more than 40 percent of them, neither parent had a four-year college degree.
“The families of the kids that we try to recruit for the Imagination camps are often not aware of what’s possible,” she said. “The technology to fill out an online application can be daunting. Transportation is a barrier. There are so many barriers that can keep families from pursuing an experience like this.”
Lester’s group tries to remove as many of those roadblocks as possible. All expenses for the six-day residential camp were covered, thanks to funding from Wing, MAAP, the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering.
Building the drones was the main attraction. Over the course of a few days, piles of circuit boards, tiny bolts, lightweight black frames, and clear plastic propellers became a fleet of 40 nimble racing drones. Each drone’s quartet of motors had to be placed in the correct positions; each flight controller had to be oriented the same way as the drone it was paired with. Engineers and pilots from MAAP and Virginia K-12 teachers looked on, guiding the campers through the process and helping them troubleshoot snags.
Toby Tracy, the MAAP engineer who led the build, said he could see the sense of accomplishment on the campers’ faces when they brought up their finished drones to plug them in for the first time.
“This was the make-or-break moment,” he said. “You check for the colored lights that tell you the receiver is talking to the transmitter. You flip the drone on and make sure all the motors are spinning. I taught them why I was using a multimeter. It was really an ‘aha’ moment. Being able to teach them something I love was just great.”
The rest of the week’s activities gave the students some context for where that “aha” moment could take them.
A careers panel introduced the students to drone pilots in fields from filmmaking to journalism to emergency management. At the Wing site in Christiansburg, they were treated to a behind-the-scenes look at all the moving parts it takes to make a real-life drone delivery operation tick. They got a tour of the Stability Wind Tunnel and heard from Christine Gilbert, assistant professor of aerospace and ocean engineering, about research that could lead to new methods of propulsion.
If the students had any doubts about the value of their new skills, visits by officials from the Federal Aviation Administration dispelled them. Abigail Smith, the deputy executive director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, and project manager Diana Robinson explained just how many jobs the expanding drone industry is creating for pilots and technicians (86,000 just in the next year) and told the campers about outreach programs the FAA has created for students interested in those jobs.