Enthusiasm takes flight

Drone Day introduces high schoolers to CMU technology, lab

High school students fly a drone on the lawn next between Finch Fieldhouse and the Health Professions Building on Wednesday, May 8. More than 40 students visited campus for Drone Day, a multi-departmental effort to educate and inform potential students about the Central Michigan University Drone Lab. (Courtesy photo | Mike Potter | CMU School of Communication, Journalism and Media)

Zach Huffman and Aurora Linn stood amidst about a dozen high school students in the yard east of Finch Fieldhouse Wednesday afternoon. Green mylar balloons swayed in the breeze, defining a runway, of sorts, for the eager teenagers clustered around a set of controls at its south end. 

Before them, a drone hovered in the air. It bolted north, gaining altitude as it zipped along the flight zone, parallel to the sidewalk. 

“Man, that kid is flying,” said Thornton High School senior Dominic Davis, a grin on his face. 

This was Drone Day: A multidisciplinary effort that brought more than three dozen high schoolers from across the state to Central Michigan University’s campus May 8. During the day-long event, students heard from university faculty, police and members of the private and energy sectors about the myriad ways drones can be integrated into the working world. 

Alongside presentations on everything from using the technology to help predict the weather to how they can help keep power flowing across the state, the young participants had the chance to seize the controls under Huffman and Linn’s watchful eyes. 

Davis was sold. He’ll be enrolling in the fall semester in pursuit of a degree in broadcasting and a certificate from the university’s Drone Lab. 

Already an accomplished flier of drones, the 18-year-old is looking forward to getting his Federal Aviation Administration pilot’s license while a student here. 

“Hopefully I can start my own business and I can go around teaching people about drones,” he said. 

Davis was eyeing larger institutions for his college careers, but an instructor at Thurston High tipped him off about CMU’s multidisciplinary drone program. A few campus visits and a Fire Up Friday later, he was hooked. 

There’s just something about flying a drone, Davis said, that has resonated with him. While not yet a high school graduate, he already taught at four public schools, introducing young children to the popular technology. 

“When they see these drones take off, it’s mind boggling,” he said.

Aurora Linn packs up a drone following Drone Day, May 8, on the lawn outside of Finch Fieldhouse. Linn, who received her degree May 4, 2024, is the first graduate to earn Central Michigan University's certificate in Drones. (CM Life staff photo)

For Kevin Campbell, the director of the drone lab and faculty member in the School of Communication, Journalism and Media, that’s the whole point. 

“It’s all about getting (students) the opportunity to engage with something new,” he said, as he stood at the edge of the fieldhouse basketball court, surrounded by audio/visual equipment showcasing drones in action. “It’s bringing students to CMU. It’s showing them new opportunities and it’s our outreach.”  

Drone Day saw the lab partnering with professors from the colleges of business and engineering, a meteorology professor, the campus police department, Consumer’s Energy and alumni. 

As a graduate student here, Huffman had a New Venture Challenge-winning idea to combine talented drone pilots with top-of-the-line cinematic storytelling. That vision is now a flourishing company called Hyvion that counts among its clients ESPN, for which it provides aerial images of college football. 

So when university President Bob Davies approached Huffman to help get the drone lab in the air, the entrepreneur did not hesitate. Likewise, he didn’t shy away from returning to home turf to get the next generation of future fliers interested. 

“Our goal and what we’re doing here is to give all the (university) departments another tool for their tool belt,” he said. “Doing it has been a lot of fun.”