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Firefighters rescue teen's science project drone from palm tree

April 25, 2012 |  2:30 pm

Christian Stewart with his drone

One of the best student science projects in all of Los Angeles County nearly fell victim to a palm tree.

For months, 15-year-old Christian Stewart, of Studio City, 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.

Stewart personally wrote the computer program that runs the drone, and judges recognized his work by awarding it 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.

Then last Friday, just 10 days before Stewart was set to take the drone to the California State Science Fair, a test flight went awry.

He had programmed the drone for a shallow landing, but he said, “My depth perception failed me.”

“I really wasn’t bargaining for a tree,’ he said.  

Christian's father, Jim, was watching the glider as Christian set the computer programs. 

“I saw it make a perfect turn for the field. The only problem is, there was a palm tree there,” Jim said. “I watched it fly straight into the top of that tree.... My heart just sank.”

Neither Christian nor his father immediately considered the possibility the drone could be lost forever. Christian had put it too much time. The plane was too important.

“There was no way I was going to just let it go,” he said.

But computer data told father and son the plane was 56 feet high on the tree’s branches.

Tree trimmers told Jim they couldn’t help. So Christian’s mother, Jenny, took the only option they had left. She called the fire department.

To everyone’s mild surprise, a truck arrived in minutes.

It ultimately took a second water truck, a break for another emergency call, a long ladder and three attempts with different nozzles to finally blast the glider from its perch.

Miraculously, the family said, the precious project landed upside down on the street unharmed.

To thank the firefighters, the family took cookies on Sunday to Station 78.

“They just reminded me of knights,” Jenny said of the firefighters. “They came galloping up, they did the good deed, and they went off in their truck. “

Christian and his winning drone will compete Monday and Tuesday in the California State Science Fair at the California Science Center in Exposition Park. Without the demo drone, he said he still would have been able to present, but his display would have lacked a critical component.

“I would have done anything to get it back,” Christian said. “The firefighters saved the day.”


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