As more companies add unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones, as part of their work force, the need for skilled pilots to operate them also grows. To address the demand for more skilled pilots, colleges, vocational schools, and private training companies are offering drone pilot training programs that can teach students how to properly fly commercial drones.
Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for example, offers a five-week course called the RaD Lab Skills Academy Drone Aviation Badge. The goal of the course is to teach students FAA rules and regulations, let them earn an FAA license with UAS rating (FAA Part 107), give them simulation draining to learn how to safely pilot a drone, and then gain hands-on flight time with FAA licensed teachers.
At Cloud County Community College in Concordia, Kansas, began offering a one-year certificate and a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree program in small unmanned aerial systems in 2017. The drone programs were established as part of the college’s Wind Energy Technology program, which trains students in operations and maintenance of commercial wind turbines.
Monte Poersch, an instructor and advisor at the college, said they needed to find a way to safely inspect wind turbine blades as part of the composite blade repair certificate program. “The standard was to suspend a technician with a camera 300 feet off the ground on a rope to identify the problem areas,” Poersch said. “This is a dangerous and time-consuming endeavor, as each time the downward-facing blade was inspected, the technician would then have to either climb the rope or descend until the next blade was in position for inspection. Using drones for these inspections is much safer and saves a considerable amount of time.”
But it can become expensive for instructors to just hand the controls of a drone over to a student who has never flown a system, which is why many schools and companies are turning to simulation software as part of their curriculum. Both colleges use Little Arms Studios’ Zephyr drone flight simulation software, which gives students an easier way to learn how to pilot a drone than by risking damage to a thousand-dollar-or-more vehicle.
Preparing a drone pilot for multiple flying scenarios
Other than a multiple-choice test from the FAA for Part 107 pilot certification, there aren’t other requirements to becoming a commercial drone pilot.
This creates a potentially dangerous and expensive situation, said Cory Acey, business development manager at Little Arms Studios. “It could make for a pretty dangerous environment if you have thousands of people flying drones with no education on airspace, no education on wind physics, avionics and things like that,” Acey said. Situations where a drone flies too close to a radio tower and loses transmission capabilities, or flies too close to a tree and comes crashing down can be dangerous for others and expensive for the drone owner if they don’t know what they’re doing.
“What we want to do is promote safe and real training so [students] can get hands-on experience before they’re out there with expensive aircraft that could potentially endanger others’ lives,” Acey said.
Little Arms sells its Zephyr simulation software for individuals looking to practice on their own (for about $140), but the most recent push is enterprise-level software that lets colleges and professional development companies provide training for multiple students. The software includes seat licenses and a management system that lets instructors see data on each student’s progress as they go through the different training modules.
The simulation software itself offers multiple modules, ranging from basic training, to more difficult scenarios like maneuvering through an obstacle course. There’s even a “drone racing” module and cinematography module that can teach skills for those efforts, although it’s not a part of the core training programs. Within each module, users can adjust for situations like wind, and the software can tell the user whether they are violating any FAA requirements (such as going beyond 400 feet in altitude or beyond line of sight).
Cloud County Community College’s Poersch said limited class time and equipment availability make it more important to have things like the simulation software to help students improve their drone piloting skills. “Many students are somewhat intimidated to fly in front of other students for fear of failure,” Poersch said. “This gives them the opportunity to enhance their skills in private if they choose.” In addition, instructors and the college benefit from being able to measure students skills, and lower the risk of damage to the expensive physical equipment, he added.
Drone growth spurs need for drone pilots
A few years ago, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicted that more than 50,000 jobs will be created between 2015 and 2025 in the commercial drone space. Meanwhile, the FAA estimates the number of U.S. certified drone pilots would grow from 107,800 in 2017 to 422,000 by 2021. As industries such as agriculture, insurance, surveying, media, construction, real estate and public safety begin to use drones in their workflows, someone will have to fly the vehicles.
SkyOp, based in Canandaigua, N.Y., provides training courses for drone pilots but also creates curricula for community colleges and professional development companies. The company has 26 partnerships with colleges and technical training centers and can “train the trainers,” said Brian Pitre, president and co-founder of SkyOp.
He said there were three types of students coming in for drone pilot training:
- People who want to start a drone business and need to learn the technical background of flying drones.
- People who want to start a new career as a drone pilot.
- People sent to the training from their employer, who have recognized new capabilities for their business from commercial drones.
It’s this third group that has seen the largest growth in the last year, Pitre said. “Companies are now becoming acutely aware that this technology actually changes almost all business, because of cost reductions and the things you can do with this technology. It really turned the corner last year.”
Pitre said SkyOp helped Little Arms develop the Zephyr software exclusively after it looked at other simulators and found the programs lacked necessary modules for training drone pilots. The company was also looking for a Macintosh simulator because half of their students owned Macs and not PCs, Pitre said.
Interestingly, SkyOp students don’t immediately start with the simulation software – SkyOp uses inexpensive model quadcopters from Syma to introduce the concept of taking off and landing. “We actually start people with the model quadcopter first because everyone that comes to the class wants instant gratification,” Pitre said. But he added they quickly introduce the simulator to students to introduce concepts such as flying with wind, flying multiple aircraft, and other events that can be manipulated with the software.
The SkyOp curricula also gives students instructions to prepare for the FAA Part 107 exam, which can be more difficult than students think, Pitre said. About 15% of the test covers drone information, with the other 85% covering topics that you’d learn in private pilot ground school, he said. “For example, in the test, you have to know things like “What are the radio frequencies to contact aircraft? What are the markings on runways and airports? Things that don’t seem necessarily relevant to drones, but are required to be known by the FAA. So a lot of people are surprised by that.”
Examples of different drone training and degree programs
Here is a small sampling of the different types of drone pilot training programs, ranging from pilot training at community colleges to Associates and Bachelor’s degree programs at universities. SkyOp also has a searchable index of upcoming classes at its site.