student prepares to launch drone

“Part 107 facilitates the appetite for professionals.”

There is palpable excitement within the unmanned aircraft industry about the opportunities opening up now that restrictions on commercial drone flights are being relaxed. Pilot schools have long been considered for-profit drone operators and have been working under the same sharp flight limitations as everyone else. Part 107 will make training the next generation of pilots easier to do.

Schools that have been relying heavily on simulators are redesigning their curricula and creating new classes to give students more hands-on experience with multi-rotor and fixed-wing drones. Though flight experience is not required under the new rules, it could be a competitive advantage—especially for those seeking jobs at firms using commercial-grade aircraft and high-end sensors.

Kansas State Polytechnic has been offering hands-on training to students through a Section 333 exemption from the FAA—the first school to do so. Once Part 107 comes into force, the school will offer even more options.

The new curriculum, available starting with the 2016–2017 academic year, begins with incoming freshman getting a private pilot certificate for manned vehicles, and then also becoming certified to fly by instruments only. By the end of the first year, they also will have taken a course on flying multirotor vehicles in which each student flies about 40 missions for a minimum of 10 hours behind the controls.

By sophomore year, those same students will be teaching underclassmen how
to fly.

“Without a doubt, [being able to teach others] is one of the things that our industry partners have…expressed is a requirement. When they’re hiring a UAS professional, they want pilots that can instruct,” explained Kurt Carraway, executive director of Kansas State Polytechnic’s UAS program, based in Salina.

Not only does hiring a good teacher mean that one pilot can quickly become two or three, but able teachers are good communicators.

Embry-Riddle began offering a UAS minor in 2009, said John Robbins, Unmanned Aircraft Systems program coordinator. By 2011, the program had expanded to a major with eight people enrolled. By spring 2016 there were 243 students enrolled.

Up until Part 107, the school used a lab with 16 simulators designed to replicate the experience of flying a generic medium-altitude, long-endurance, fixed-wing vehicle. Simulators are fairly well suited for UAS training; even a pilot of a real UAS is often just looking at a screen.

Now Embry-Riddle is setting up a new outdoor flight facility that will complement the fieldwork that the school already does—using drones, for example, to monitor beaches for wildlife conservation or emergency management. One thing that’s not changing: Embry Riddle students are still going to be required to get certified to fly manned aircraft.

“We feel the ratings are necessary even though not required to the same extent,” Robbins said. “When you operate larger aircraft, many companies are requiring a manned certification.”

The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has just cut the ribbon on its latest source of pride: a dedicated building for its expanding UAS program. The university prides itself on one non-flight-related part of its curriculum: computer science. After recently reaching out to UND alumni and their employers, the consensus was that a greater grounding in programming, especially networking and cybersecurity, would be helpful to new grads. Now students take an intro to computer science course alongside CS majors to learn “some of the basic thought processes you might see,” saidlead flight instructor Erin Schoenrock. They also will be required to take a class on cybersecurity. Beth Bjerke, chair and professor of the aviation department points out that “If you’re collecting data, you need to be concerned about security,” .

Oklahoma State University’s UAS program is offered at its Stillwater campus. The first school to focus on UAS engineering at the graduate level, OSU’s program also offers engineering specialties to undergraduates and a pilot track with a
UAS minor.

The program is growing. Many students in the manned pilot course “are starting to see the market grow for unmanned and switching tracks” Gary Ambrose, OSU’s director of strategy and applied research at the Unmanned Systems Research Institute  said. Many of them, those who are qualified to fly, he said, are being pulled out of school to fly missions for some of the university’s partners, giving them valuable real-world experience before they graduate.

I frequently comment that the biggest barrier to 600,000 commercial drones is the lack of licensed pilots, especially those capable of executing complex missions. While decidedly not trade schools, the best university programs are in tune with the needs of the market. You can see that the people planning these curriculums have some keen insights into what it is going to take to be successful as the drone industry continues to evolve and become more complex.
Several of them insist on the student completing their manned license, ensuring a deep understanding of the NAS and putting graduates in a position to compete with other licensed pilots for what will continue to be the premium jobs.



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