UCSC launches CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research

Becca Fenwick
Becca Fenwick is co-founder and director of CIDER
Justin Cummings
Justin Cummings is co-founder and associate director of CIDER

UC Santa Cruz is launching a new initiative offering educational training and research support for the development and use of drone technology across all academic disciplines and many industry sectors.

The CITRIS Initiative for Drone Education and Research (CIDER) aims to support research and industry growth by bringing together diverse students, researchers, and industry partners from a variety of sectors, helping fuel research and innovation and develop a diverse drone workforce. The initiative includes a mentorship program for undergraduate students to provide career-enhancing experiential learning opportunities, hands-on field research, flight time, and FAA licensure.

The proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) or aerial drones for research and commercial uses has dramatically increased over the past 10 years. As aerial drones become more affordable and the technology matures, the application of drones is expanding across many professional fields, which require trained, licensed pilots to conduct these flights.

With the global drone economy predicted to increase from $15 billion to $90 billion by 2030 (Levitate Capital 2020), the demand for skills applicable in the drone industry will only grow. Aerial drones have applications in nearly every field of study at UCSC, including, but not limited to, surveys of coastal and terrestrial ecosystems and animal populations; data capture of remote archaeological sites and support for sociological fieldwork; cinematography; drone development, autonomous navigation systems, and other new technology development; and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing.

The incoming director of CIDER, Becca Fenwick, brings over 10 years of experience using UAVs for a range of research applications. She previously served as director of environmental IT for the UC Natural Reserve System (UCNRS).

The incoming associate director, Justin Cummings, has spent the past two years flying drones with Fenwick as part of the California Heartbeat Initiative, a $2.2-million, 4-year project to map and measure water resources on UCNRS properties around the state. Cummings previously served as the founding director of the UCSC Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program, whose mission is to grow diverse leadership to strengthen conservation.

As part of the initial launch of CIDER, the extramural Pilot in Training (PIT) mentorship program is being offered to undergraduate students interested in working with drones, with an emphasis on targeting students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. In late November, 20 students will be selected to participate in this nine-week program, which will meet two days per week for two hours per day during Winter Quarter 2022.

Students will learn how to fly drones, do photogrammetry, use software to create maps, study to earn their FAA part 107 license, and process imagery in GIS, among many other activities. To ensure all students are able to participate, those selected will receive a $600 stipend for participating in the program. The program will also cover the costs for students to take their FAA 107 license test. Students who earn their license will be eligible for volunteer and paid opportunities to support campus research and contracts to fly drones and process data.

Applications are available online at cider.sites.ucsc.edu/pilots-in-training-program. The application deadline is November 5, 2021.

CIDER has five core pillars:

  1. Experiential learning for undergraduate and graduate students
  2. Campus research support
  3. Securing commercial contracts
  4. Supporting students traditionally underrepresented in STEM
  5. Industry outreach

In addition to the PIT mentoring program, CIDER staff is also in the process of securing contracts for drone field research with local and state agencies that will provide opportunities for trained students to get paid field experience.

The program is also working to support capstone and independent study opportunities and develop certification programs and course-bearing curriculum with faculty and industry to support workforce development. Additionally, staff are developing relationships with companies to provide internships and employment opportunities for student pilots.

For any students and faculty currently interested in using drones for field research, CIDER staff is available to support their efforts. For more information go to cider.sites.ucsc.edu or email cider@ucsc.edu.