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Teen and drone once stuck in tree compete in state science fair

April 30, 2012 |  6:00 am

Christian Stewart and his drone

When the California State Science Fair kicks off Monday, one 15-year-old Studio City innovator will feel fortunate that he still has a project to present.

Christian Stewart's autonomous, low-cost drone got struck in a palm tree during one of its final test runs April 20, and it took two fire trucks, a long ladder and three attempts with different hose nozzles to finally blast the glider from its perch.

“There was quite a lot of concern," Christian said recently. “I was really nervous about it.”

But he added: “There was no way I was going to just let it go.”

Christian will show his project to judges Monday and Tuesday as he competes with 30 other students in his category for first place and a chance at a share of more than $50,000 in prize money. The event will be held at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.

For months, Christian toiled away, trying to develop a low-cost drone that could fly on its own, take orders from a computer program and shoot video from hundreds of feet above the ground.

The Harvard-Westlake freshman managed to create a $500 foam glider with a computer and a camera on board, which he estimates costs about $24,500 less than other experimental civilian models.

Christian wrote the computer program that runs the drone, and judges recognized his work by awarding him first place at the Los Angeles County Science Fair a few weeks ago. He said a biologist even approached him about ways to use the drone to quietly track wolves in the area.

On Monday, Christian will be among the youngest students in the senior division as one of more than 900 participants from across the state. He said he is hoping to place well, but is more excited about the chance to share his work -- work that almost was lost in a tree.

“Christian has put his life in this thing,” his father, Jim, said. “It’s his show, and we’re just bystanders.”

The fair culminates with award ceremonies Tuesday night.


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--Matt Stevens


Photo: Christian Stewart and his drone. Credit: Jenny Stewart