The Federal Aviation Administration has selected Harper College’s Drone Technology and Applications certificate program for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Collegiate Training Initiative (UAS-CTI).
Harper began its drone program in the spring 2021 semester. It is the only UAS-CTI college in northern Illinois and one of two such programs in the state.
“We designed this program to meet the needs of students, but in the process we met the FAA requirements, too,” said Mukila Maitha, coordinator of Harper’s drone program, associate professor and Geography department chair.
“This program is comprehensive, featuring multi-rotor, fixed-wing drones, simulators and a strong tie to geospatial technology. Between the curriculum, educators, hardware and lab facilities, our capacity aligns with the FAA’s requirements.”
The FAA’s UAS-CTI program recognizes institutions that prepare students for careers in unmanned aircraft systems, commonly referred to as drones. Colleges must provide curriculum covering various aspects of UAS training, including hands-on flight practice, maintenance, uses, applications, privacy concerns, safety and federal policies concerning drones.
Harper’s Drone Technology and Applications certificate program consists of six courses focusing on aspects from drone piloting to geospatial technologies to photography. Most classes are online, with the courses involving learning to fly the drones taking place in a blended format due to the need for on-campus instruction.
The program launched with a full capacity of students, and Maitha remains thrilled with the students’ passion for drone technology. Due to the quality of instruction from Richard Schultz, adjunct instructor and experienced geospatial educator, many students in the program felt confident enough to apply for their drone pilot’s licenses before the first semester was over.
Maitha said that all of Harper’s applicants in the first semester earned their licenses.
One of them was Angelica Avalos, who learned about the program via Harper’s Geographical Information Systems (GIS) program, which shares some DNA with the drone program.
After earning a GIS certificate (and then serving as a supplemental instructor in the program), Angelica took drone courses on her way to an Associate in Science degree at Harper. She plans on graduating in fall 2022 and transferring to an area university to earn a bachelor’s degree in geography.
“One of my dream jobs would be to work for the National Park Service,” Angelica said. “I’d love to be able to explore things like natural resources, forestry and more through drone imagery.”
She’s already begun on that path through her work with an area park district and internships with Harper’s facilities management and Lake County Forest Preserves. She said her drone credentials impressed her Forest Preserves colleagues, who had worked with a third party for their drone needs.
“Not everyone can claim ‘licensed drone pilot’ on their resume,” Angelica said, laughing.
Angelica’s geographic interests represent just one avenue for those certified in drone technology — something she said was represented by the diversity of interest and expertise in her Harper courses. She recalled students who were real estate agents and photographers, firefighters and high school teachers. Some worked in fields involving natural resources; others were in marketing.
Maitha said this speaks to the program’s usefulness, as well as the number of “bright outlook” careers available to those with knowledge and skills tied to emerging workforce needs. The FAA’s selection of Harper’s program only enhances the importance of it.
“I think it recognizes the high standards that we have,” he said. “It recognizes the rigor and resources in terms of expertise and the needs of students.”
He emphasized that this is only the beginning. The drone program is Harper’s first step into aviation, and Maitha hopes to build on that foundation.
“There is opportunity for significant growth for Harper, for students,” Maitha said. “This opens the door to serving the drone education needs throughout the Chicago metropolitan area and beyond.”