By David B. Laning, PhD, PE, Principal Engineer and Solutions Architect
Every July when the weather is warm and the windsurfing kicks up in the Gorge, Insitu holds its annual RoboFlight Academy. This year will mark the seventh anniversary of this week-long event, which focuses on robotic flight and related activities to encourage high school students to pursue STEM careers. The activities are a blend of hands-on flight, theory, design, assembly and test and there is plenty of time allocated to explore, experiment, try, learn, fail, succeed and fly. In this way, high school students learn how educational preparation in engineering, technology, mathematics and science relates to real world activities in the unmanned systems and tech industry. Additionally, it is an opportunity for them to meet and directly work with engineers, scientists and mathematicians from industry and academia. This helps to “bridge the gap” for students as they build an understanding of what a STEM career involves, the kinds of individuals that pursue them and the types of day-to-day activities that a professional does in such a career.
RoboFlight Academy began as a joint initiative of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Educational Foundation and Insitu in 2012. Since then, each year between 20-to-25 students work with mentors from Insitu, other unmanned systems companies, universities and community colleges near Insitu’s headquarters. To keep things moving, the week is organized into a mini-development project with both structured and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) efforts. Five full days of activities run through our “Theory-Design-Build-Test-Perform” cycle. This includes flying quadcopters, fixed-wing aircraft, gliders, kites, balloons and other DIY contraptions that fly. The students also gain experience through programming activities on Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, cameras, ground control stations, 3D imaging, meteorology, radios, tools, the Internet of Things and the web.
Since its inception, RoboFlight Academy has improved its curriculum as unmanned technology has evolved and as our understanding of the best activities for STEM advocacy has matured. By doing so, our team provides a hands-on learning environment, the impact of which is best illustrated through the successes of the students who have gone through the program. One such instance involves Petra, who completed the very first RoboFlight Academy in 2012. That year, we focused on the basic fundamentals of flight and the constraints of size, weight and power using Parrot ARdrone quadcopters and Arduino programming. After gleaning all that she could from RoboFlight, Petra went on to pursue a degree in STEM before becoming an intern and eventually a full-time employee within Insitu’s manufacturing engineering team. Another example of RoboFlight creating a “pipeline” of talent into Insitu can be found in an Insitu intern named Julian, who completed five years of the program. Through the years, Julian has experienced almost all facets of RoboFlight, including 2014 and 2015 when we flew quadcopters across the Columbia River from Oregon to Washington. While we were able to conduct several successful flights, this exercise did conclude with a few drones in the water, which we of course chalk up as a vital part of the whole learning experience. We are now proud to say that after participating in RoboFlight for five years, Julian has accepted a position as an intern with Insitu’s mechanical engineering team.
While RoboFlight Academy is serious fun, the team behind it is also on a mission to help the community create a pipeline of talented individuals who will hopefully continue to foster innovation within Insitu.
In the end, the success of RoboFlight Academy is measured with results. To date, there have been about 150 RoboFlight alumni. Of those alumni about a dozen have obtained STEM university degrees and many others are mid-stream in their STEM career preparation. The ultimate measure of success is that Insitu now employs several of these RoboFlight Academy alumni—including Petra and Julian. The pipeline is in place and ramping up!
If you know a student that is interested in joining us at RoboFlight Academy, please sign up to be considered for this year’s program.Click for more Click for more