Drone Pilot SchoolDrone racing, ethical hacking and more: Green River instructors want to train “cutting edge” students

July 27, 2021by helo-10
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Green River College instructors Andrew Bruce and Clinton Sizemore have spent their careers tinkering with tech, hacking into drones and protecting networks from cyber attacks.

This fall, Plateau students will be able to learn the tricks of the trade, too.

“For a kid who wants to play video games and doesn’t know what they want to do, well, flying a drone is an interactive, live action video game,” Bruce said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot of fun.”

Both Green River graduates themselves, Sizemore and Bruce will be instructors for a pair of new two-year associate’s degree programs on cybersecurity and drone operation at the college’s Enumclaw campus. Sizemore will be teaching the cybersecurity and networking program. Bruce, meanwhile, is teaching network security and cybersecurity as well as the unmanned aerial systems program.

The programs start this fall, and will both be available for Running Start students. They’ll be headed by Green River’s Cybersecurity and Networking Director Alan Carter and Aeronautical Science Director George Comollo.

The campus, located as 1414 Griffin Avenue, will hold a fall reopening event Aug. 12 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. where students can learn more about the programs.

The new Wild West

Photo by Alex Bruell
Clinton Sizemore, instructor for Green River College’s upcoming cybersecurity program, shows off the features of a “Raspberry Pi,” a tiny computer he can hold on the palm of his hand.

In our hyper-connected, 21st-century world, the instructors want their generation of students to lead conversations around what drone and cybersecurity technologies can do — and how the law should regulate them.

Rather than silo the programs, the instructors say they hope students experiment with a variety of classes and start thinking about what hackers might do tomorrow instead of just what they’re doing today.

“The attackers always have the advantage,” Bruce said. “If I’ve thought of a hack, somebody smarter than me already did. Somebody better than me is already using it.”

Sizemore spent six years in military law enforcement as a member of the U.S. Air Force, then spent time as a Department of Defense police trainer. He moved to the Pacific Northwest for his wife’s job in air traffic control, and made a career pivot himself into cybersecurity.

“It’s the same mindset (as law enforcement) — defend, protect and serve — but with a lot less risk,” Sizemore said. “I’m not on a two-way firing range anymore.”

Cybersecurity is the new “wild west,” Sizemore said.

“In the wild west, the cities that held together the best were the ones where the barber and the general store manager had each other’s backs,” Sizemore said. “You have to have business, banking, drones, and cybersecurity all play in the same sandbox. … Because the attackers are in the dark web, coordinating attacks.”

Anything that transmits and receives data can theoretically be hacked, but companies and governments “unfortunately” tend to be reactive rather than proactive about cybersecurity, Sizemore said.

Hackers in May used malware to attack Colonial Pipeline, the largest fuel pipeline in the U.S., for days, paralyzing parts of the East Coast with shortages that forced Colonial to pay a ransom of 75 bitcoin ($4.4 million at the time) to the hackers. It was “the most significant, successful attack on energy infrastructure we know of in the United States,” an energy researcher told Politico at the time.

“National infrastructure, in general, is decades behind where it should be, in computer years,” Sizemore said.

Cities could, for example, be running their utilities, law enforcement or hospital networks on an outdated operating system like Windows 7.

In that case: “(Bruce) and I could own it in 10 minutes,” Sizemore said.

Drones are vulnerable to hackers too — so the courses will even include classes on drone hacking, the instructors said.

While working as an electrician, government contractor and salesman, Bruce discovered a love for security systems and eventually moved to take the cybersecurity bachelor’s program at Green River’s Auburn campus. From there, he’s taken his passion into teaching. He’s piloted drones during search-and-rescue operations and has used them in drone racing and drone fighting, too.

Both Bruce and Sizemore just last year finished getting their master’s degrees in Cybersecurity and Leadership at the University of Washington in Tacoma.

“Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” (UAVS), are popping up in all sorts of industries close to home: Amazon could use low-flying warehouse drones to move and scan products. Private forest owners might use high-flying drones to survey timber lands. Forest Service rangers can use fleets of drones to track wildlife or find lost hikers. Even firefighters can use drones to put out fires or get eyes on a scene before crews arrive.

With the technology improving and prices becoming more competitive, a fear of the cost shouldn’t keep anyone away from drones, Bruce said.

“There are a ton of industries on the Plateau that are going to embrace drones,” Bruce said. “So are you going to get a job necessarily with a drone? Probably not. Are you going to get a job over somebody who doesn’t have drone experience, in many industries? Potentially, yes.”

Green River is already one of three dozen or so institutions that partners with the FAA for its aviation program. That partnership creates a pipeline for students to land jobs as pilots and air traffic controllers, and Bruce wants to get the drone program recognized, too.

“We’re kind of gold plated with the FAA,” Bruce said. “There’s no reason that we won’t do the same thing with drones.”

The generation of students graduating from these programs will be in on a growing technology and in a region that’s “perfectly primed” for their expertise, Bruce said. They’ll also have a say in the slowly-coalescing laws and regulations around drone piloting.

“These people are going to be helping set the trends,” Bruce said. “We’re going to have people coming out of our program who will be getting jobs in all these industries.”

Class structure

Photo by Alex Bruell 
Andrew Bruce shows off one of his smallest drones as it takes off from the palm of his hand.

Photo by Alex Bruell
Andrew Bruce shows off one of his smallest drones as it takes off from the palm of his hand.

Students in the cybersecurity program will learn security “from the ground up,” Sizemore said.

How do you fix a PC? How do you operate a server or a firewall? And how do you program a router that a hacker can’t crack?

Students will take classes on working with the Linux operating system, but they’ll also take general education classes like math and English. One of the classes offered will be on “ethical hacking,” or the use of hacking for good.

Classes start in-person this fall, with up to 24 people in the classroom; a camera in the classroom will allow students beyond that to learn from home, Sizemore said.

The drone course, meanwhile, will give students a flavor of broader business, networking, programming, and cybersecurity knowledge.

Students will learn how to pilot, program and automate drones, use them for GIS mapping, and they’ll even take a class on photography. They’ll also learn about airport operation, the laws around air space and how to communicate with pilots and air traffic controllers.

The city “has thrown their hats in” to support the project, Bruce said, and they already have clearance to fly the drones around the area.

Students must achieve a certain amount of flight hours to graduate. One way to rack up that experience could be through drone racing, a sport which is exactly what it sounds like.

There’s no formal league set up yet, but Bruce said that with a little time and luck, local high schools could be competing in drone racing similar to high school robotics programs. The instructors are already starting to talk with local governments and businesses now about partnerships and sponsorships. (Anyone interested can email Bruce at [email protected] with “UAV Questions” in the subject line, he said.)

The drone courses will feature the same ability to learn from home, though both instructors hope to see students in the classroom as much as possible. If you can’t start in the fall, Bruce said, they plan to offer a rolling start so students can begin in later quarters.

The hybrid online component of the classes might assuage those with COVID-19 concerns, but it’s also an accessibility consideration, Sizemore said. Not everyone can easily commute to campus for every class.

Besides, it’s thematically appropriate for lessons which are all about remotely operating machinery, or stopping hackers from behind a screen.

“In my mid-30s, I’m still not sure I can say what I want to be when I grow up,” Bruce said. “But the ability to say, ‘Let’s give you some skills and some education’ is great. If you don’t know what you want to do, and you want to go into something that is fun, and gives you some skills and college credits, it’s a great way to start.”

For students unsure exactly what to make of the programs, Sizemore said instructors will help them chart a path.

“You’re not in a kayak,” Sizemore said. “You don’t navigate these waters alone. You’re in a boat. Let me take the helm. Come into my office. By the time you leave my office, you’ll have a plan. Whether or not you deviate from that plan, that’s fine.”

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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.

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