Seven Franklin County schoolkids were among two dozen area students who took part in the STEM Summer Challenge June 5, 6 and 7 in Panama City at Gulf Coast State College.

Two students who were ABC 8th graders last year, Weston Bockelman and Alex Itzkovitz, and five Franklin County students, Sage Brannan, Genesis Jones and Marina O'Neal, who were in eighth grade last year, and Eli Whaley, and Austin Gray, freshmen last year, attended.

Students from Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka also participated, and students were grouped to combine students from different schools into small teams.

The Seahawks were at the center of much excitement during the first week of June as faculty members from Gulf Coast and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Panhandle Area Educational Consortium (PAEC) personnel, provided an Unmanned Systems STEM Summer Challenge hosted by the college. Embry-Riddle provided this high-tech learning opportunity at no cost to participating students through a partnership with PAEC. Gulf Coast, 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 FCS science teacher Lucinda Mathews.

"It was wonderful to see these students from four different schools working together to solve challenging problems with good humor and positive attitudes," said Mathews.

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.

“The program sessions were well organized and presented - it was such a fantastic opportunity for students to participate in this, and I hope the word will spread so that more will want to participate next year,” said Mathews.