The CIDER pilot training program helps students reach new heights in drone research and industry

On an unusually hot day in early February, a group of students and faculty launched drones into the air over a meadow on the campus of UC Santa Cruz, one of the few places in the world to be home to the Ohlone tiger beetle, an endangered species. The group used the drones to map slight differences in the topography of the land to better understand the species’ preferred habitat areas and eventually determine the best ways to protect them.

This field research was part of the very first training program for drone pilots set up by the UCSC CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research (CIDER), which aims to support drone research and industry to develop a diverse drone workforce. CIDER launched this new program with a cohort of 18 undergraduate students with a range of academic interests who met twice a week for classroom and field drone training.

“The CIDER Pilot Training Program is a great way to provide students with training and skills that have real value, and to really benefit from that learning process,” said Becca Fenwick, Director of CIDER. “There are such a variety of ways to use drones that there’s something for everyone – from engineering challenges, applications in marine conservation, to videography, and beyond. We call them the swiss army knife.

The CIDER program aims to reduce barriers to entry into drone research and industry by providing access and the opportunity to earn flight hours with expensive drone hardware. Many students in the first cohort came from underserved settings prioritized by the CIDER program, which includes students with demonstrated financial need and those from communities underrepresented in STEM.

During the 10-week program, student training included lessons in the operation of drone hardware, applications of drone technology, and training with drone software such as GIS and other data processing tools. data. Students in the pilot training program could also train and take tests to receive an FAA Part 107 license, which would make them legally licensed commercial drone pilots, with the CIDER program covering the testing costs.

Isabella Garfield, a second-year marine biology student, noted that measuring the terrain of the Ohlone tiger beetle was one of her favorite parts of the pilot training program. This experience, and the program as a whole, made her more interested in developing expertise in drone technology to carve out a place for herself in her field. She hopes to bring the skills she learned to her work as an intern at UCSC’s Beltran lab, where efforts are underway to leverage drone technology to count and measure the health of elephant seal populations. .

“Being drone certified and having the experience I gained from the CIDER program has definitely given me the tools to have that extra option open if I want to incorporate [drones into a future job]”, Garfield said. “I can see that happening.”

In this way, the pilot training program serves as a potential pathway for students to undertake complex scientific research using drones. Four students in this year’s cohort are working for on-campus research labs, and another is participating this summer in the UCSC Earth Futures Institute’s Frontiers Fellows program, which provides funding to support multidisciplinary environmental research.

Students can also accumulate flight hours during the program and through paid on-campus work contracts, using drones to perform jobs such as building inspections or event photography and videography. In the future, students can use their skills to support research flights for professors and conduct environmental investigations for external partners.

These paid experiences can help students better prepare for using drones in an industrial environment. Two students in the cohort have completed paid internships with industry partners CIDER, working for companies that use drone technology for agriculture and forest fires. Two other students have received full-time job offers from an industrial partner Skydio, which designs and markets drones.

Matthew Bennett, a fifth-year graduate student who majored in robotics engineering, credits the CIDER program with preparing him with both the technical knowledge and field experience with drones to successfully land a flight test operator job at Skydio. He notes that learning how drones respond to real-world conditions, like a windy winter day in Santa Cruz, prepared him for questions during the interview process.

“There’s the book work — making sure you know all the hard facts,” Bennett said. “But getting that flying experience is a whole other thing that can help build confidence.”

Going forward, Bennett and Garfield hope to see CIDER continue to grow and serve more students who might otherwise face barriers to entry into drone research and industry. The pilot training program will run again in fall 2022 – visit this link for more information.

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