Two small helicopter-like Unmanned Aerial Systems were flown in and outside of Rocky Mountain College’s aviation building this week as professor Scott Wilson and two of his students demonstrated how to operate the machines and discussed the complex regulatory environment surrounding them.
Unmanned Aerial Systems – more commonly known as “drones” – have become a hot topic both locally and nationally, which is one of the reasons Wilson felt the time was right to bring the topic to Rocky students.
“Certainly there’s lots of stuff about this in the press,” he said. “The range goes from global articles right down to articles written here in Billings. That’s when I thought we had to get something started here at Rocky.”
The course, which was taught for the first time during the spring semester, makes Rocky one of only 10 colleges across the country that teach this subject. This created challenges as Wilson developed a curriculum. The first was deciding how to grade the course. The professor eventually decided to use a combination of tests, presentations and extra credit demonstrations of how to fly the machines.
Another challenge was finding a textbook. Wilson settled on one written only 18 months ago that required students to focus primarily on the regulatory environment surrounding UAS technology.
“This is important,” Wilson said, “because if we endorse them and send them out into the world with these skills, we want them to have the regulatory environment in their hip pocket.”
Wilson’s background as an aviation attorney proved helpful as he taught his 15 students about that regulatory environment – which is enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Though the FAA has set some regulations, the biggest problem is that the technology is developing far faster than the 30 UAS employees in the FAA can deal with it.
“The best analogy I can give you is people driving 80 miles an hour on the interstate,” Wilson said. “They’re all doing it and they all know they’re exceeding the speed limit, but the traffic cop only catches the most egregious of the violators … . The FAA just doesn’t have enough manpower to chase every instance of abuse.”
Wilson estimated that there would be anywhere from 7,500 to 20,000 UAS operators by 2019. In dealing with this growing industry, Wilson said the FAA will have to take on a political dimension as it balances the rights of citizens to enjoy privacy and the rights of commercial operators to conduct business.
Considering how much the UAS industry is growing, Wilson said Rocky graduates with a UAS endorsement are guaranteed to earn at least $75,000 a year upon leaving college and could be making more than $100,000 within a few years.
Two of Wilson’s most promising students, sophomore Joseph Mutchler and recent graduate Ryan Rojeski, were on hand to demonstrate how to fly two of the six drones that were custom-made for the Rocky program.
The Rocky drones can be split into two basic varieties: fixed-wing drones, which look like miniature airplanes, and vertical lift drones, which are X-shaped and have four helicopter-like propellers on top.
The latter drones were the ones demonstrated by Rojeski and Mutchler on Monday. Mutchler’s vehicle was piloted through a standard remote control while Rojeski used an iPad to pilot his. Two cameras on the latter vehicle provided video directly to Rojeski’s device.
The drones also have GPS features that allow them to correct course if they’re blown off course by wind and auto-return to their starting point if they get dangerously low on battery power.
While much of the discussion these days is focused on the dangers of drone usage, Wilson emphasized that these “airborne smart phones” can do a lot of good as well.
“Like any tool, if it’s abused, it’s going to cause social problems,” he said. “If it’s done properly and respectfully, it can do a lot of good.”
Drones are already being used for such disparate purposes as crop dusting, wildlife management, surveillance in the military, and search and rescue.
According to Mutchler, the Stillwater County Sheriff’s office has invested in a sophisticated UAS platform with an infrared camera that officers use for search and rescue. In the event that somebody’s lost in the wilderness, this platform can be launched quicker than if people had to be sent out to search.
“You can have 10 times the surveillance for one-tenth of the cost,” Wilson said.
Wilson said that he expects to see completely automated cargo planes within 20 years, but that passenger planes will still be at least partially human-operated.
Mutchler agreed: “I don’t think there are many of us that would be comfortable with getting in a plane that does not have a pilot that’s fully autonomous. I think the need is always going to be there for a pilot because you can’t program a computer to respond to every possible situation that could arise.”
No matter how the technology evolves, this Rocky class appears to be here to stay. Wilson called this semester’s class “a mutual learning experience” for both him and his students and he is looking forward to teaching next semester’s class – which is completely filled with aviation students eager to learn about this developing technology.