Taking flight with drone innovation

Screwing the final bolt in, project Leelyn Drone takes off. Diamond Bar High School class of 2022 alumnus Alan Zhang and the Dronescape Club completed the first human-carrying drone made by highschoolers and announced its completion after 327 days of anticipation.

But when the club was first founded in April 2021 by Zhang, a project of this caliber wasn’t originally their plan. Project Leelyn was initially launched as a side project, but ended up being the main focus of the club. 

“[It was] named after a joke, because one of our club’s former officers, named Leelyn, weighs so little that we joked of putting her on there,” Zhang said via Instagram.

Zhang found a passion for building at a young age and decided to establish a drone club to fulfill his passion. During his time at DBHS, he strived to pass down his interests to club members.

“It was a childhood dream of mine to build something that I can fly in. Even with the stress of my adolescent years, the dream never diminished,” Zhang said. “When I realized I may have the potential to make it a reality towards the end of my junior year, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try it.” 

Zhang had a lot of concerns regarding this project. He doubted his own abilities at first, but persevered.

“[I felt] nervous, I didn’t have too many expectations for it, because even I thought it was unrealistic. A high schooler building an entire electric aircraft sounded absurd.” Zhang said.

But from watching informative YouTube videos, he learned how to build drones from scratch. He then passed down his knowledge by teaching the rest of his dronescape team to build the machine and to carry on his legacy. 

Even when facing many challenges such as having to spend his summer this year working on the drone by himself, talking to sponsors during late hours due to the time difference between China and the U.S. and also convincing them that this project was worth investing in, Zhang pushed through the many adversities and finished the first ever electric aircraft made by a teenager. However, he and his team were not permitted by DBHS to test out the aircraft on campus due to safety reasons.

“[I feel] accomplished and bitter [after completing the drone]. Knowing that I was able to raise $25,000 by myself was a huge accomplishment.” Zhang said. “I now get to brag about this to aerospace professors at Berkeley and it has become my social profile. However, I am still bitter about the fact that Diamond Bar High School didn’t allow us to fly it.”

Early this spring, Zhang was accepted early into UC Berkeley under the Management, Entrepreneurship and Technology (M.E.T.) dual degree program and majors in mechanical engineering and business administration. The alumnus said he had trouble choosing between the two, but then he got presented with the opportunity to be in the dual degree program.

“I’ve always wanted to pursue both engineering and business while not giving up the other subject,” Zhang said. “This acceptance was more meaningful than any other colleges, especially the fact that the acceptance rate was only 0.8%.” 

After getting accepted at UC Berkeley—and now working directly with Berkeley as an M.E.T. student—he plans on starting new projects based on the Leelyn Drone and testing it out on NASA’s Moffett Airfield. He works to improve the model and looks forward to building it with improvements.

“The fact that we built that and made history as the first high schooler group to ever build an eVTOL [electric vertical take-off and landing] really surprised me. Although we don’t know if it could fly, the mere fact that the machine exists is something worth celebrating.”