L-R Dickson college students Stephen Horsburgh, Briana Wade and Saxon Hutchinson with a scale model of the drone that they built for a competition.

Dickson college students, from left, Stephen Horsburgh, Briana Wade and Saxon Hutchinson with a scale model of the drone that they built for a competition. Photo: Melissa Adams

The use of drones is a controversial topic. So for Dickson College, a sponsorship from Northrop Grumman Corporation, a supplier of drones to the US Defence Department, raised some questions.

For four years, the college has been developing a drone - or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - and competing in the annual national Outback UAV Challenge.

It is an ongoing project that incorporates students from the college's robotics class as well as IT, mathematics and physics, and develops students' problem-solving skills with real-world applications.

Competing requires resources for kit planes, equipment and travel, which the school is now getting from Northrop Grumman Australia in a partnership both have been thrilled with, despite early hesitations.

''It's certainly an issue that our board grappled with around what are we doing here - who are Northrop Grumman,'' principal Kerrie Heath said, noting the college has a ''strong social justice agenda'', offering the only refugee bridging program in the ACT.

''[We asked] well, what's the innovation around how systems like [drones] can be used to support the people we really care about?

''I actually think the answers to that question will come from kids … they're so much more open and innovative and entrepreneurial than we could ever give them credit for.''

Ian Irving, chief executive of Northrop Grumman Australia, said while they build drones largely for maritime reconnaissance and military purposes, there are many more potential uses, including parcel delivery, as online retailer Amazon recently highlighted.

''The future for those unmanned systems is tremendous,'' he said. ''I think it's something Australia really needs to embrace, given the size of our country, the opportunities in agriculture to use unmanned systems for surveying crops and things like that - they can provide really significant benefits in regards to cost of operations [and] safety.''

The company awarded monetary scholarships to three standout students from Dickson's UAV project, designed to encourage them to continue studying in the aerospace field despite the fact that they did not win the national challenge.

There is work to do on the ''huge'' three-metre wingspan drone the team used this year to drop a food package to a target in the UAV challenge.

''It's way too heavy,'' year 12 graduate and scholarship winner Briana Wade said.

While other teams used small planes and simple drop mechanisms, the Dickson team developed a pneumatic air-pressure system capable of targeting a GPS co-ordinate.

''To make an air pressure system within this plane required lots of heavy parts, and that made it really sluggish and slow … it then sacrificed the rest of the plane's capabilities,'' classmate Saxon Hutchinson said.