Gulf Coast State College in Panama City was the focus of much excitement during the first week of June as faculty members from Gulf Coast State College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and PAEC personnel provided an Unmanned Systems STEM Summer Challenge to middle and high school students from Gulf and Franklin counties.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University provided this high-tech learning opportunity at no cost to participating students through a partnership with the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium. Gulf Coast State College, another project partner provided space, faculty and technical support.

During the Challenge activities, student teams designed, constructed, and flew their hovercraft and coded terrestrial and aerial vehicles to navigate through obstacle courses to conduct autonomous “missions.” On the final day of the challenge, students tested their skills by maneuvering the systems during a series of competitions.

Students were accompanied by Gulf district teachers, Lana Harrison and Kim McFarland and Franklin district teacher Lucinda Mathews.

This is an important opportunity for area students, because unmanned or autonomous systems are gaining in sophistication, use is expanding and the demand for new systems and operators is growing. Annually, the potential financial impact totals in the billions of dollars across military, commercial, personal, and technology sectors. Increased demand is a result of the benefit of using these systems in places where people cannot reach or are unable to perform in a timely and efficient manner.

By using cameras, sensors, and computing capabilities, these systems can sense and navigate challenging terrain and provide information, so that human operators may understand the environment and take action to achieve a variety of missions.

Some of the uses include examining agricultural crops, capturing more innovative shots for movies, getting closer to action for accurate news stories, highlighting real estate properties and mapping areas. Unmanned systems are also making their way onto roadways and in use to deliver packages, inspect bridges and oil platforms, for search and rescue missions, to monitor drug trafficking across borders, to conduct weather and environmental research, in disaster relief, firefighting, and by the military. Their use captured an international audience during the 2018 Winter Olympics when 1218 Shooting Star drones took to the skies to present an inspiring light show, as well as set a Guinness World Records title for the most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously.