Laurel Ridge drones program comes first in international award category

For Immediate Release:
May 25, 2023

Primary Media Contact:
Sally Voth
Public Relations Specialist
[email protected]
Phone: 540-868-7134

AUVSI Xcellence award 2023 1st Place Winner logo
The college now offers two drones-related career studies certificates.

Laurel Ridge Community College’s drones program has been named as a first-place winner in the Workforce Development category of the XCELLENCE Awards by the Association for Uncrewed Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI). Laurel Ridge was selected from a pool of accomplished applicants for their work in uncrewed systems technology. Winners were publicly congratulated during the XCELLENCE awards ceremony during AUVSI XPONENTIAL on May 9, in Denver, Colo. This year’s 50th anniversary event was co-hosted by Messe Düsseldorf North America.

“This year, XPONENTIAL is all about designing a shared plan for the future of autonomy,” said Keely Griffith, Vice President of Strategic Programs at AUVSI. “There’s no better place to announce the 2023 XCELLENCE award finalists. Together, they are redefining what’s possible with uncrewed and robotic technology.”

The “Laurels Take Flight” initiative, under the leadership of Professor Melissa Stange, brought this new and exciting career field to life beyond Laurel Ridge through webinars, camps, classes, workshops, and trainings for community members, from kindergarteners to those in the workforce. The college began offering new drone courses last fall. These classes include a mix of face-to-face and online instruction, as well as plenty of time flying a variety of enterprise-level drones. 

In January, two career studies certificates were approved by regional accreditors, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. The small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Flight Operator certificate teaches students the fundamentals of sUAS operations. It aligns with the aeronautical knowledge required for FAA-approved commercial operations as a remote pilot and prepares students to sit for the FAA part 107 exam.

The more advanced small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Flight Technician certificate provides both theory and hands-on experience with mission planning, ground control, emergency procedures, drone programming, and training on using geospatial data for analysis, presentation and decision making. 

The AUVSI XCELLENCE Awards honor innovators with a demonstrated commitment to advancing autonomy, leading, and promoting safe adoption of uncrewed systems and developing programs that use these technologies to save lives and improve the human condition.

“It’s really an honor to receive an international award in workforce development for our uncrewed aircraft systems program and it’s a testament to the work that program lead Dr. Stange has done to advance awareness of uncrewed systems and advanced air mobility as a career in our region,” said Dr. Craig Santicola, dean of Laurel Ridge’s School of Professional Programs. “While our Laurels Take Flight initiative is still new, we have held quite a few events and courses and have more planned for the coming year. Thanks to a GoVirginia grant, we will also be able to grow UAS training into Fauquier and Rappahannock counties by offering drone academies to the counties’ high school students this fall.

“As the industry for uncrewed systems and advanced air mobility grows, it’s imperative that our region meet industry demand through a trained workforce that can operate these systems safely in the national airspace system. Our program focuses on safety and providing students time flying a variety of enterprise-level drones, but we also do a lot of community outreach to provide education on the new and rapidly expanding career opportunities that UAS can provide. Winning this award affirms that we are on the right track with our innovative programs, and we can’t wait to unveil our other new certificate programs in the coming months.”  

Learn more about Laurel Ridge’s drones program at For more information about AUVSI visit For more information about the AUVSI XCELLENCE Awards and XPONENTIAL 2023, visit


Founded in 1970, Laurel Ridge Community College is a multi-campus public institution of higher education. With three locations — Middletown, Warrenton, and Luray-Page County — the College serves eight localities in the Shenandoah Valley and northern Piedmont regions. The localities are the counties of Clarke, Fauquier, Frederick, Page, Rappahannock, Shenandoah and Warren and the city of Winchester. Laurel Ridge offers more than 75 associate degree and certificate programs in a wide variety of disciplines, in addition to providing access to bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree programs offered on site by a four-year institution. Laurel Ridge also serves the business community by offering workforce preparation programs for employees and employers. Laurel Ridge serves more than 9,000 unduplicated credit students and more than 11,000 individuals in professional development and business and industry courses annually.

Laurel Ridge Community College is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award associate degrees. Laurel Ridge Community College also may offer credentials such as certificates and diplomas at approved degree levels. Questions about the accreditation of Laurel Ridge Community College may be directed in writing to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, GA 30033-4097, by calling (404) 679-4500, or by using information available on SACSCOC’s website (

Laurel Ridge Community College is an equal opportunity institution providing educational and employment opportunities, programs, services, and activities. Laurel Ridge shall promote and maintain equal employment and educational opportunities without regard to race, color, religion, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, marital status, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions including lactation, age (except when age is a bona fide occupational qualification), status as a veteran, national origin, or other non-merit factors. Laurel Ridge also prohibits sexual misconduct including sexual violence or harassment. Inquiries may be directed to the Associate Vice President, Human Resources, [email protected]173 Skirmisher Lane, Middletown, VA 22645, 540-868-7226.

Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.