Faculty and students from the Harper College Drone Technology and Applications program recently opened up their classrooms to U.S. Rep. Sean Casten and Federal Aviation Administration officials.
Mukila Maitha, coordinator of Harper’s drone program, led a presentation during the Oct. 29 visit about the program’s history before allowing former and current students to share their experiences with a group that included Casten, who serves Illinois’ sixth congressional district, Dr. Avis Proctor, Harper College president, and Rebecca MacPherson, the FAA’s regional administrator for the Great Lakes region. The students explained interdisciplinary uses for unmanned aircraft and discussed workforce opportunities before instructing visitors how to pilot a drone in a flight simulator.
“This certificate program gives students the skills that they need to enter this fast-growing drone industry,” said Maitha, also the geography department chair and an associate professor at Harper. “We have experienced faculty and we have first-class facilities. This puts us in unique position to serve not only our district, but the entire Chicago area.”
Indeed, Harper’s program is one of only two programs in Illinois selected by the FAA for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Collegiate Training Initiative. The 16-credit certificate program, which began in January 2021, offers comprehensive training in both multi-rotor and fixed wing drones, while preparing students for the FAA’s Part 107 drone pilot exam.
“What I love about Harper and our community college system broadly is that we have this rapidly dynamic economy and you guys move so quick to address it,” Casten said. “You all have worked with the FAA; you’ve created this program and we’re so thankful to have you in our district. We’re so thankful we have the professors bringing this up and making this work and, of course, the students to take advantage of all this.”
The students were the focus of the event, highlighting how each had used drone technology at Harper (from surveying geography on campus to studying environmental factors in India) and outlining how it will assist them in their future careers (including emergency management and parks and forestry). Each expressed their fascination with drones, but also how drone pilots can be a necessary resource for many industries — sometimes even saving lives in the aftermath of a natural disaster.
“If you want to be an environmental specialist and you’re licensed to pilot drones, that gives you a tremendous tool to go into places safely,” the FAA’s MacPherson said. “There are implications for geology. There are implications for law enforcement. Anytime you get out of an office structure, there is probably an application where being able to safely and effectively operate a drone would assist you in your professional choices and your ability to do your job.”
After the FAA administrator noted aviation’s struggle to build a diverse pipeline of new pilots, it was notable that each Harper student who presented at the event is a woman — and many are women of color.
“With regard to community colleges, [the FAA’s drone initiative] really allows us to expand our footprint in drawing people to careers in aviation,” MacPherson said. “We get people interested in aviation in different ways, most of which is about exposure. Aviation hasn’t always been good about diversity. There are shortages in women and minorities, and we think bridging the gap through community colleges is a great way to address it.”