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By Paul Bradley  /  
2014 February 3 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Ready For Takeoff

Northwestern Michigan College has offered courses in drone technology and operation for the past four years.

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Ready For Takeoff
Technology Advances Have Colleges
Revving Up Drone Piloting and Analyst Programs
By Paul Bradley


In the view of Aaron Cook, aviation director at Northwestern Michigan College, the sky’s the limit for the future of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

“It’s kind of like the Wright Brothers all over again,” he said. “People see this (drone) technology having the same impact on aviation as the jet engine.”

For the past four years, NMC, located in Traverse City, Mich., has been offering courses in unmanned aerial systems, cementing its place among the nation’s leaders in training students how to operate drones. Students learn how to fly remotely controlled aircraft. They discuss the current state of the drone industry and undergo hands-on training in the field.

Now, colleges around the country, anticipating a boom in the domestic applications of drones, are following NMC’s lead, developing certificate and degree programs for an industry that seems poised to generate thousands of jobs and millions in research funding in coming years.

Sinclair Community College (Ohio), for example, currently offers a certificate program for students seeking entry-level technical positions involving unmanned aerial systems and is planning a two-year degree program. Northland Community and Technical College (Minnesota) is offering a program teaching students how to analyze images captured by unmanned aircraft.

When Atlantic Cape Community College (New Jersey) announced late last year that it would offer an introductory course in drone technology this spring, it quickly filled up, said Otto Hernandez, dean of career and technical education. Students already enrolled in the college’s aviation program signed up, as did those interested in new technology and gadgets.

“We were a little surprised by the reaction,” he said. “The course filled up very quickly. We’re now researching the creation of a full-time course of study. We see this as a real growth area.”

Today, most jobs flying drones are military-related. Drones are mostly banned from the domestic airspace. But an evolution is underway and accelerating. Once a closely guarded military secret wreaking havoc on terrorists, drones are now being billed as capable of delivering pizza or dry cleaning to your door.

The industry is expected to take off in 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration releases regulations for unmanned aircraft in the nation’s domestic airspace. The FAA predicts that within five years after the regulations are written, about 7,000 commercial drones will be sharing the skies with manned aircraft.

The commercial potential of unmanned aerial aircraft is considered enormous. One study suggested that the industry could create 70,000 jobs and generate nearly $14 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2018.

Potential applications include disaster response, weather forecasting, agricultural survey of crops, crop dusting, power line and pipeline surveillance, payload and package delivery and aerial photography for fields such as real estate, construction and the media.

Colleges aren’t waiting for FAA clearance to train students for jobs in the drone industry. NMC recognized the potential about six years ago, Cook said. The college already had an aviation training program, and drones seemed like a logical add-on, he said. They were hot. Courses are now oversubscribed.

“We’ve been in it longer than almost anyone,” Cook said. “We’ve been teaching aviation for awhile. We knew that this new technology was big enough to develop a curriculum.”

The college offers a certificate in unmanned aerial systems, and also has an engineering technology degree specializing in unmanned aerial systems. It includes training on electronics, hydraulics, computer programming and robotics.

NMC has an advantage over some other colleges who are training students in drone piloting and technology. It has an FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA), a requirement to fly drones under tight restrictions: the vehicles can’t weigh more than 25 pounds, the maximum altitude is 400 feet and the flying space must be at least five miles from any airport. According to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation last year, 358 public entities, including 11 colleges and universities, currently have a COA.

Most of the certificate holders are law enforcement agencies. Drones are already flying over the Mexico border to track the movements of people trying to sneak into the U.S.

NMC also has five drones on which students can train. They include three helicopter-like devices and two fixed-wing aircraft, Cook said.

Students fly the devices on a vacant parcel of land donated to the college.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have strong local support for this program,” Cook said.

While the program at Atlantic Cape is in its infancy, the potential is tremendous, said college President Peter Mora. The college already has an aviation studies program, training students to become pilots, air traffic controllers, air traffic control and airport managers. The college’s proximity to the William J. Hughes Technical Center, the FAA’s national scientific research center, makes aviation a natural fit and a growth area for the college.

Drones have the potential to create good-paying jobs in an area that is now heavily dependent on the Atlantic City casino industry, which is struggling as casinos open around the country, Mora said.

“We’re fortunate to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “We just have to find our niche. The technical center has been a tremendous partner,” he said. In fact, the college’s drone technology course will be taught by two experts who work at the technical center.

The college will also benefit from New Jersey’s selection as one of six test sites that will be researching how to integrate drones into the national airspace. Since 2007, a team of aerospace engineers, computer technicians and other researchers at the Hughes center have been developing rules for drones. Data from the test sites will be funneled to the center and used to support its research.

For all the enthusiasm for drones, educators face a critical obstacle in developing courses and curriculum. Until the FAA completes its work, no one knows what qualifications a drone operator must have. Colleges that now have programs must work with individual employers to determine what skills they need.

“Currently, there are no standards for drone operators,” Hernandez said. “The pilots’ association wants them to be certified pilots, to be instrument rated. I see the value in that. Even though they won’t be in the air, they’ll need many of the same skills.”

But the absence of employment standards has done little to dampen the enthusiasm of colleges who look to the skies and see potential for an important new workforce development area.

“It’s moving very quickly,” Cook said. “It’s like the cellular phone industry. We’re at the iPhone stage. Soon we’ll be at the iPhone 5 stage. The capability is moving very quickly. It’s a challenge to stay in front of it.”

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Q:  Should your college add a program in drone operation and technology?
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