Meet the interns who have kept the drone park humming
Things are a little slower at the Virginia Tech Drone Park by the end of May, when the annual April crush of school tours and research projects and class visits and outreach events and drone races has receded. But earlier in the spring, the mild weather and a packed events calendar brought a steady stream of visitors that kept Madeline Hower, Madelyn Johnson, and Cason Kerrick even busier than their full undergraduate schedules already did.
Johnson just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering from the College of Engineering. Kerrick and Hower wrapped up their third years in the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, Kerrick in aerospace engineering and Hower picking up majors in both disciplines. Together, the three interns helped shoulder the load of keeping the drone education facility, with its towering net and adjacent lab and classroom, running smoothly.
The drone park hosted nearly 1,000 individual visitors this year, including local school groups, researchers, students from 18 Virginia Tech departments, and companies. Sarah Macey, the park’s manager, said it's because of the interns that the park is able to serve so many people and support such a diverse range of projects.
"They are an extraordinary group of students," Macey said. "They bring an incredible level of professionalism and talent to their work, and combine it with a student's fresh perspective that makes drone technology feel more relatable and accessible for many of the people who come to the park."
The drone park, with a net that soars 85 feet high and a footprint the size of a football field, is one of the largest in the country, and it's in high demand. It opened in 2018, under the umbrella of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and since then its success has been fueled in part by a string of dedicated undergraduate interns.
Johnson has been there almost the whole time. She met Tombo Jones, the director of Virginia Tech’s FAA-designated drone test site, at a career fair in the spring of 2018; he connected her with Macey, who also runs the test site’s training programs.
Hower and Kerrick found their way to the drone park in 2021 through an honors course on drone technology in public safety, where they collaborated with Virginia Tech police on a prototype design and developed an online course covering drone use on college campuses. They worked with Macey and some of the test site's engineers on these projects, and Macey was so impressed that she recruited both of them.
Kerrick already had plenty of flying experience as a member of Virginia Tech’s drone racing team, but Johnson and Hower started more or less from scratch. Today, they’ve all earned their Part 107 certificates — the license the Federal Aviation Administration requires to fly a small drone for anything other than strictly recreational purposes — and have racked up enough expertise to pull double duty as interns for the test site, helping the team of pilots and engineers staff the big, complex research operations that have a national impact on drone technology and regulations.
But they spend most of their work hours at the drone park hosting visitors, fixing aircraft, and teaching new pilots to fly. School tours are a standard feature on the calendar, and all three of them agreed that seeing kids get excited about flying drones for the first time is one of the most rewarding parts of what they do.
“Kids are surprisingly good at it,” Hower said. “As long as they’re not trying to show off,” she added, smiling. (The interns redirect the attention-seekers with tasks such as flying their drone in the shape of a box .)
Students or not, many of the people who turn up at the drone park don’t have much experience — which is one of its advantages, Hower said.
“You don’t have to have any prior knowledge to be able to fly here. You don’t need any certifications or waivers or forms. And you get one-on-one help with people who can teach you.” Those people, often, are the interns.
It’s not all smooth sailing. A tennis ball launcher has become a fixture at the facility: It knocks down drones that get snared in the netting. (Kerrick, whose drone racing chops make him more comfortable than the average pilot with tight turns and close approaches, admitted he’s gotten several tangled up himself.)
But even without snagged propellers, drones break down and software glitches. Hower, Johnson, and Kerrick fill the downtime during slow seasons or bad weather updating software, checking batteries, and making sure all the routine maintenance is up to date.
“Because drones are such a new technology, they tend to have things that go wrong with them a lot,” Hower said. “A lot of people who come here are beginners, so they’ll come to us with a problem and you have to think quickly about how to figure it out.”
They say the opportunity to level up their troubleshooting skills is one of the most valuable benefits of the job.
“If you have an issue, we’ve probably run into it before and have figured out how to fix it,” Kerrick said.
He also appreciates the confidence he’s gained engaging with groups of people. “Working with tour groups and people using the park has helped me come out of my bubble,” he said.
The three of them have taken the expertise they've built on drone technology and regulations and packaged it into a Canvas site for the drone park. The site includes the training course that the university's policy requires to fly a drone on Virginia Tech property (anywhere other than at the drone park) and an extensive collection of resources for anyone interested in taking the Part 107 exam.
It's not just useful professional skills the three of them have gleaned from their internships: The experience has helped connect them with actual jobs.
“It’s a small industry,” Johnson said. “Getting to know people through the drone park is a great way to make connections.” At one outreach event, she met someone from a local company who later hired her to conduct an aerial bridge inspection. She landed an internship last summer at drone company Skydio and will start a full-time job there in June.
In the meantime, some of the most ambitious drone research being done in the U.S. right now has unfolded right in front of them. The netting that divides the 5.4 million cubic feet of flight space from the national airspace also exempts it from the strict regulations that typically govern drone use. That means that in the drone park, futuristic ways of using drones and ingenious aircraft still in the prototype stage are fair game.
Almost every college at Virginia Tech has researchers finding new applications for drones or developing technology that will expand the boundaries of what autonomous aircraft can do, and the interns have had a front row seat to that evolution.
“Software autonomy, AI [artificial intelligence], object avoidance: All those things have gotten so much better,” Johnson said. She likens it to the transformation of clunky car phones to sleek smartphones — but happening in a fraction of the time.
One the drone racing team, Kerrick said, “Our drones used to be very bulky and broke all the time, and now the stuff for racing is way smaller. They’re way stronger, and they’re going faster.”
“We’re getting in on the ground floor of something that’s going to be astronomical,” Johnson said.