“SkyCatcher” Drone Invention Sends a St. Stephen’s Junior to the International Science and Engineering Fair

Eric Xu '25, an international boarding student from Hong Kong, placed first in the Engineering category at the Greater Austin Regional Science and Engineering Fair. The drone he calls “SkyCatcher” also landed in the top six “Best of Fair” category, which fast-tracked Xu to the international competition.

The “Best of Fair” winners automatically advance to the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles this coming May – bypassing the state competition. Additionally, Xu, who competed against approximately 250 high school students, won the United States Office of Navy Research Award and the United States Air Force Award.

“Hearing that I'd be advancing to ISEF felt like a dream, as this goal felt so distant and infeasible,” said Xu. “I am really glad that I’ll be able to go to Los Angeles for the international fair, as I’ll get to meet a lot of students who have the same passion, which will also give me an opportunity to share my project with more people.”

Xu said the amount of information while learning and implementing the drone systems was overwhelming, but “I found joy in making each little step work.” 

Supporting and rooting for Xu has been a team effort by Upper School science faculty members. Prior to submitting the project to the regional fair, Xu received feedback from Physics and Engineering instructor Danielle Horton, Science Department Chair Frank Mikan and Electronics and Robotics instructor Troy Lanier. And on the day of the regional fair awards ceremony Physics instructor Ace Furman ’12 attended in person as a show of support for Xu. Horton will travel with Xu to the ISEF in LA.

“Eric is an exceptional science student,” said Horton. “He is curious and passionate about science, engineering, and technology. He has done impressive work on SkyCatcher and his forward thinking design is practical and adaptive. I’m excited to see what he does next!”

Xu is extremely grateful for all of the St. Stephen's support.
“I want to thank Mr. Mikan for all the financial support and guidance for my presentation. I want to thank Mr. Lanier for teaching and helping with electronics while keeping me motivated every day, and I also want to thank Dr. Furman for his help and encouragement for the regional science fair. I want to especially thank Ms. Horton for all the help with registration and keeping me updated on everything,” said Xu. 

Upper School students Darren Chen ’25 and Thomas Guan ’25 also participated in the regional competition. Chen’s project was titled “Multi-level Intelligent Transformer-based Model for Forecasting Renewable Energy Generation,” and Guan’s project name was “Unsupervised Wildfire Change Detection Based On Contrastive Learning.”

If you happen to see Xu on campus, be sure and ask him about his project. It will help him practice for the interviews he will be conducting with judges at the international fair in May. To learn more about Xu’s award-winning invention, you can read the abstract he submitted for the regional competition below.

Click here to view a short video of the drone in action.

Update on the ISEF in May 2023

Eric Xu ’25 won big at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles, California in May 2023 with his “SkyCatcher” delivery drone that he designed and built. Eric is the 4th place Grand Award winner in the Embedded Systems category, and includes a $500 prize. Xu also won a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas and a year of computer software. Eric joins an elite group of ISEF alumni who have gone on to amazing careers and made lifelong friendships and collaborations with ISEF alums.

Click here to watch Eric's full interview on CBS Austin about his award-winning invention.

SkyCatcher Description, by Eric Xu ’25

My very first idea of this ring-structured drone started around December 2022, but I really started the ideation in March 2023. Even though I’ve always been interested in drones, at that time, I didn’t have a clue how the various electrical components work together to make a drone fly. Therefore, I had to learn the basics of electronics and the components (flight controllers, ESCs, motors, etc.). Luckily, my classes with Mr. Lanier—Electronics & Robotics and Projects in Science & Technology—really allowed me to build a fundamental understanding of electronics. During the designing and building process of the drone, the various manufacturing and assembly techniques posed many challenges but also provided a lot of learning opportunities. I had my first prototype built and working, as it could grab and transport express boxes.
However, I wanted to add more useful features. I added more sensors and algorithms to the drone to enable faster response and higher hovering stability. I also implemented SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) along with automatic trajectory planning using a 2D LiDar and the TEB and Dijkstra algorithms. To enable all of these features, I had to design my own flight controller PCB instead of using the commercial ones. Even though the amount of information while learning and implementing these systems was overwhelming, I found joy in making each little step work.
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