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KNBC/The Filter with Fred Roggin
High school freshman Christian Stewart won the L.A. County Science Fair with his unmanned drone airplane, creating the autonomous flier for a fraction of the corporate cost. But a week before the state science fair, he nearly lost his prized possession when it flew perfectly on course into a tree. But the story doesn't end there. NBC4's Fred Roggin reports on Aprili 26, 2012.
A Los Angeles area freshman's $500 science fair-winning drone was involved in a harrowing crash that prompted a fire department response in Studio City after it was nearly lost to a towering palm tree.
Christian Stewart, a student at Harvard-Westlake School, had spent months perfecting his foam glider.
It looks like a standard model airplane -- but it contains an array of sensors for airspeed and GPS that Stewart uses to program the drone from a computer.
"If you take a second look it's quite advanced," Christian said, pointing out the wires and other components inside the project, aka "Low-Cost Autonomous Civilian Unmanned Aerial Systems."
But during a test flight last week near his home in Studio City, a landing went awry.
"I had it configured for a shallower landing, and as I was looking at the computer thinking it was going fine, it made a perfect turn," said Stewart. "The only problem was there was a palm tree there."
Stewart could only stare skyward as all of his hard work was engulfed in fronds atop a 60-foot palm tree, just about a week before the California State Science Fair.
His father called a tree trimming service, but they were not willing to save the drone -- even in the name of science. So Christian's mother called the fire department.
Most science projects worth doing probably involve some type of emergency response, but Christian watched in surprise as a bright red ladder truck rounded the corner to his family's house. Watch the video above to see pictures Christian took to document the drone rescue.
"Cat in tree, plane in the tree -- anything, they'll help," Christian said. "And, they came within minutes.
"They had one of their larger trucks with a ladder, and I couldn't believe they were even thinking about doing this, but they couldn't reach the ladder all the way over the house to the palm tree. So, they concluded the only way they could get it down was using high-powered streams of water."
An already cool science project just got better. Firefighters unleashed progressively higher-powered nozzles on the tree until a gloriously violent burst of water finally dislodged Christian's prototype.
"They just shot it out of the tree," Christian said. "It was really incredible. It flew over a pool and a house and landed in the street. It was perfectly fine."
The near-catastrophe occurred just days after the drone won the Los Angeles County Science Fair. Thanks to the firefighters, Stewart can show off his drone April 30-May 1 at the California State Science Fair at the California Science Center.