Nineteen high school students from St. Mary’s Ryken High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, spent the day applying their ingenuity to a STEM challenge that combined UAS technology with more traditional engineering principles. The activity took place at the University of Maryland System at Southern Maryland (USMSM), where the students participated in a project that resembled the classic “egg-drop” challenge, but with a drone-inspired twist.

From left: St. Mary’s Ryken High School students Jack DeLucco, Destiny Deshields, and Nathan Shepherd Credit: St. Mary's Ryken High School

The event took place at USMSM’s Southern Maryland Autonomous Research and Technology (SMART) Building, an ultra-high-tech facility that opened in 2021 and features an 80’ by 60’ by 40’ indoor space known as the Open Air Lab and used for uncrewed ground and aerial vehicle testing. The group, from the engineering program at St. Mary’s Ryken High School in St. Mary’s County, traveled to the facility to participate in the challenge.

The students were grouped into six teams, and followed a project management process that included making careful tradeoffs between technical design and available resources. The activity was the brainchild of Joseph Copenhaver, research lab manager at the USMSM-based Maryland Autonomous Technologies Research Innovation and eXploration (MATRIX) Lab.

“The students had to construct a ‘lander’ for their egg by ‘buying’ materials from a limited pool of resources that all teams had access to, using limited ‘contract funds’ to strategically acquire materials,” explains Josh Gaus, UAS Project Engineer at the UMD UAS Research and Operations Center, which co-led the event together with the MATRIX Lab.

From left: St. Mary’s Ryken High School students Shannon Cain, Joni Gordon, and Beth Mancini participated in the STEM event at USMSM’s Smart Building. Credit: St. Mary's Ryken High School

The lander was ultimately dropped from approximately 120 feet via a drone, which stood in for the interplanetary rocket in this space-inspired scenario. Using a Harris Aerial H6 drone provided by UROC and equipped with a custom-made release mechanism, the packages were deployed from 120 ft at locations on the SMART grounds selected by the student teams. The result was an across-the-board success, with all packages being deployed and none experiencing incidents of egg scrambling.

After making their design decisions, the students constructed their devices and tested them in the Open Air Lab. The teams made final adjustments before moving to outdoor testing. St Mary’s Ryken engineering and math teacher Jonathan Smith, who accompanied the students, said the young engineers had both honed their skills and come away with fresh inspiration.

“Watching St. Mary’s Ryken junior and senior engineering students work alongside professional engineers at USMSM’s cutting-edge SMART building is a testament to the power of hands-on learning and mentorship,” he said. “These experiences not only build technical skills, but also inspire a passion for innovation and problem-solving that will guide our students’ future pursuits.”

The MATRIX Lab and UROC are frequent collaborators in research and educational outreach, with both facilities contributing to a larger mission of establishing Southern Maryland as a hub for emerging technologies, particularly in the areas of automation and unmanned aviation. Located in close proximity to each other within the Southern Maryland Innovation District in California, Maryland, the collaboration serves as an inspiration for future students to pursue careers in these industries.

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/EditorEditor-in-Chief

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...

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