CIDER Pilot Training Program helps students reach new heights in drone research and industry

Students stand around a drone hovering in the air in a field.
Students practice deploying drones during a field training session.
A group photo of the Pilot in training cohort.
Members of the Winter 2022 Pilot Training Program cohort and CIDER leaders.

On an unseasonably warm day in early February, a group of students and faculty launched drones into the air above a meadow on the UC Santa Cruz campus, one of only a few places in the world home to the endangered Ohlone tiger beetle. The group used the drones to map slight differences in the topography of the field in order to better understand which areas of habitat the species prefers and potentially determine the best ways to protect them.

This field research was part of the first-ever drone Pilot Training Program put on 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 instruction about drones. 

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

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

During the 10 week-long program, the students' training included lessons on operating drone hardware, applications for drone technology, and training with drone software such as GIS and other data processing tools. Students in the pilot training program could also train and test to receive a FAA part 107 license, making them legally authorized commercial drone pilots, with the CIDER program covering the testing fees.

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

“Being drone certified and having the background that I got 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 take on complex scientific research work using drones. Four students from this years’ cohort work for  research labs on campus, and one more is participating in the UCSC Earth Futures Institute Frontiers Fellows Program this summer, which provides funding to support multidisciplinary environmental research.

Students can also build up flight hours during the program and through on-campus paid contract work, using drones to execute work such as building inspections or photography and videography of events. In the future, students can use their skills to support research flights for faculty and conduct environmental surveys for external partners.

These paid experiences can help make students better prepared to use drones in an industry setting. Two students from the cohort have paid internships at CIDER industry partners, working for companies which use drone technology for agriculture and wildfire applications. Two more students have received full-time job offers at industry partner Skydio, which designs and sells drones. 

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

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

In the future, both Bennett and Garfield hope to see CIDER continue to grow and serve more students who might otherwise encounter barriers to entry into drone research and industry. The pilot training program will run again in Fall 2022 – visit this link for more information.