A buzzing fills the air as the swarm of miniature drones lift off in unison, beginning a choreographed dance that sees them sway, roll, and even do flips. The performance is flawless, until one veers into a wall and falls dead to the ground.

They’re not perfect, says the pilot who programmed the sequence. But sharpening the technology behind these flying robots is precisely the point.

The demonstration Monday was part of St. Mary’s University’s opening ceremony for its new drone lab, which university officials hope will position the institution at the forefront of this rapidly growing industry.

“Drone technology has evolved substantially since its beginnings in military groups,” said Winston Erevelles, dean of the School of Science, Engineering, and Technology. “When you think of drones, think agriculture, conservation, construction, delivery, commercial inspection, public safety. The list goes on and on.”

The Federal Aviation Administration predicts the U.S.-registered commercial drone fleet to climb to as high as 1.6 million units in the next few years, and the industry could create as many as 100,000 jobs by 2025, according to the nonprofit Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

The university’s new facility will help educate students to meet that demand, in addition to furthering research. A new drone concentration is being created under the school’s engineering science degree program, with a cohort of 15 or so students expected in the fall.

The ceremony doubled as a blessing for the new site, owing to the school’s Catholic traditions.

“Lord God, source of all knowledge,” began Father Richard Villa’s blessing, “We dedicate this unmanned aerial system laboratory as a course center aimed at training students in contemporary aerospace and diverse engineering disciplines.”

Laying a foundation for the program are the engineering students who have built drones and drone-related projects in recent years.

Among the projects is “SMUC,” a large-scale drone designed and constructed from the ground up by students and improved by various senior projects. Its controls have been refined by electrical engineering students, just as its frame has been worked on by mechanical engineering students. Computer science majors and software engineering students have built up programming for the drone, now in version 3.5.

“It’s a bit like a Lego,’ said assistant professor Dante Tezza.

Behind the lab, Tezza demonstrated another custom-built drone, which he piloted with a virtual reality headset. The drone was the size of a hummingbird, and it flew just as fast as one as it zoomed through the sky and did somersaults.

The new lab, located next to the Richter Math-Engineering Center, is intended to turbocharge development on these kinds of projects, as well as host a new Drone Club open to all majors.

The facility boasts an enormous indoor flight space. It’s about the size of a small horse barn and offers students and researchers the rare opportunity to perform complex flight operations under controlled conditions.

Flight spaces this large are normally found only on military installations, said Bahman Rezaie, a professor of electrical engineering who has spearheaded much of the school’s drone initiative.

Future improvements discussed included wind simulations, sensors, and motion trackers, which could pinpoint the exact location of up to 50 drones flying inside the space.

The lab cost around $750,000, according to Erevelles. It was funded in part by a nearly $3 million U.S. Department of Education grant, as well as support from the Albert and Margaret Alkek Foundation, the Union Pacific Foundation, and alumni.

Donations continue for the program’s endowment, which school officials hope will become self-sufficient so cutting-edge equipment and software can be purchased every year.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.