CINCINNATI – Some Ohio schools are preparing students for a boom in the drone industry once the federal government, as is expected, allows civilian unmanned aircraft to fly in U.S. airspace.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates as many as 7,500 commercial drones could be flying in national airspace within a few years, and has until 2015 to present a plan for safely integrating drones into U.S. airspace.
At least two Ohio schools – Sinclair Community College and Kent State University – are training students for jobs using the technology. Like the University of North Dakota, Kansas State University and others around the country, the Ohio schools aren’t waiting for the go-ahead to ready students for employment in the industry.
“Our job is to be sure we are preparing the workforce to meet the jobs that are coming,” said Deb Norris, vice president of workforce development and corporate services at Sinclair.
Concerns over privacy and security issues still pose some potential hurdles regarding drones, but Ohio schools expect to see even more educational opportunities going forward.
“There are all kinds of opportunities with this technology,” said John Duncan, an assistant professor of aeronautics at Kent State, in northeastern Ohio.
The Ohio Board of Regents says Sinclair and Kent State are the only Ohio schools known to have formal degrees or certificate programs in unmanned aerial systems, but schools including the University of Cincinnati, Ohio State University and Wright State University are heavily engaged in drone research.
Kent State will begin offering a minor degree in unmanned aircraft systems next fall that will focus on systems, design and operational aspects, although specifics on drone operations will depend on the FAA, Duncan said.
“Like other schools, we are waiting to see what they allow,” he said.
Sinclair, in Dayton, offers a certificate program for those seeking entry-level technical positions involving unmanned aerial systems, or UAS. It hopes to add a two-year degree program after the FAA plan is cleared.
Nearly 60 students have taken the introductory UAS course that started in 2012, said Andrew Shepherd, director of Sinclair’s unmanned aerial systems program. Students in the program learn about air traffic control communications, meteorology and data analysis, among other subjects.
Shepherd said the school recently added an online course to teach students how to apply for FAA approval to fly drones, and Sinclair plans more online courses.
Two Sinclair students slated to receive UAS certificates this spring are eager to start.
Ryan Palm, a 31-year-old flight attendant from Vandalia, wants to be a pilot – but not for an airline. He says combining the private pilot’s license he is getting along with his UAS certificate should prepare him for various jobs once the market for drone operators opens up.
“It looks like this technology will be the next big thing, and I want to be ahead of the curve,” said Palm.
Sinclair student Drew Tait, 21, of New York City, hopes his certificate will give him an edge toward landing a job as a first responder with the New York City Fire Department.
“I think UAS will be used a lot for things like checking for possible toxins in fires and searching for victims, and I want to be ahead of the pack,” Tait said.
Sinclair also offers a course on how to apply drones to precision agriculture, which generally involves surveying fields with an eye toward improving crop yields, more precise application of treatments and early detection of disease.
Clark State Community College in Springfield also is planning a program focusing on analysis of agricultural data from drones or other sensor equipment.