Nate Kinzel with a drone

Intern Fixes His Sights on 'Perfect' Drone Design for the Navy

By Bradley Hague

Nate Kinzel always knew he wanted to fly. As a MITRE intern, he now spends his summer days designing new drones for the U.S. Navy. The goal is to redefine the art of the possible for flight, and for future drone design.

Since the moment he received a toy helicopter on his ninth birthday, Nate Kinzel knew he wanted to fly.

What he didn’t know was that the flight path from toys and model planes to Federal Aviation Administration-licensed drone pilot would lead to work creating new types of uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS) as a MITRE intern.

The Virginia Tech senior first encountered MITRE at the school’s engineering expo. “There were always two companies that were swamped at the expo, and MITRE was one of them,” he says. “The scope of what they do and the wide range of projects they cover was exciting.”

Some of the most fulfilling work a human can do is taking an idea from creation in your head and building it, and then seeing it work.

Nate Kinzel

Kinzel applied, was awarded an internship, and found a natural fit with MITRE’s Naval Enterprise and Sea Systems department. This group explores how fixed-wing drones can be adapted and redesigned for different mission parameters. They change wing lengths, weight ratios, geometry, and material—altering a drone’s form for an intended function—and then test how (and whether) the drone responds.

An Internship Ready for Takeoff

MITRE interns are integral members of our teams, helping advance our work. Kinzel says he dove right in—designing, testing, and evaluating different fixed-wing drones on day one. The next week, he was flying them.

“It’s just so much fun,” he says. “Taking a drone from the workshop, adding modifications, and then flying it to see how it affects performance. It’s like trying to make the perfect drone from start to finish.”

While much of the design work takes place in MITRE’s McLean, Virginia, headquarters, the proving ground for these technologies is more bucolic. It’s a small farmyard airstrip deep in Virginia’s rural wine country.

As he readies one of the latest drones for flight, Kinzel admits he still gets nervous testing the prototypes.

“All the drones are named, and everybody’s attached to them,” he explains. “Seeing some of them get utterly destroyed by other test pilots is really scary. I don’t want to ruin all this hard work.”

Hoping to Land a Job at MITRE

The internship lasts for a season, but Kinzel is hoping for an extended flight, and possibly even a career, at MITRE. Many interns maintain contact with us and transition to part-time on-call status when they return to school.

“Another intern and I are building our own fixed-wing drones, called Toucan Sam and BooBerry, which we’ll take with us when we go back to school,” he says. “That means we can stay in practice flying and hopefully bring that knowledge back to MITRE as possible full-time employees.”

That outcome, though, lies in the future. Today, there are drones to build, ideas to test, and challenges to overcome, in the lab and in the field.

Kinzel is clear about why he enjoys his internship so much. “I think one of the most fulfilling things a human can do is take an idea from creation in your head, build it, and then see it work. That’s just so satisfying.”

“For me, that’s why I got into engineering in the first place.”

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