More High Schools and Colleges Are Adopting Drone Pilot Education Programs 

On its website, the Texas-based Dee Howard Foundation says its mission is “to inspire, educate, and secure access for our youth to pursue careers in aerospace, in partnership with our industry, technology, and education ecosystem.”  Traditionally, Dee Howard has focused its programs on career preparation for commercial airline pilots.  But recent years have witnessed a marked shift of emphasis:  Today, Dee Howard is just one of a growing number of US foundations that are helping US high schools develop drone pilot training programs for their youth.

And not just any youth.  In recognition of the nation’s persistent racial disparities, the Foundation is focusing on training for disadvantaged minority teenagers, including young girls – groups that have rarely been encouraged to choose aviation as a professional career.

Dee Howard hasn’t had to look very far for eager trainees.  Currently, the foundation is supporting drone pilot training programs in more than 20 high schools in San Antonio’s Southwest Independent School District (IST) where the majority of the population is Hispanic, mostly from low-income backgrounds.

Leonardo Fernanzez, a senior at Southwest High School in San Antonio, TX – one of the schools Dee Howard’s funding supports – recently enrolled in his school’s new drone curriculum program.  The program focuses on the acquisition of basic STEM skills but also offers the drone flight simulation experience needed to pass the FAA Part 107 commercial drone pilot certification test.

Fernandez says getting his FAA license would allow him to secure a pilot’s job – and a six-figure income, unheard of, for his family — anywhere in the drone industry.  It would also allow him to move out of Texas – and possibly overseas.   It’s a ticket out of the “barrio” – the only life he’s ever known.

“I think for kids, the biggest thing for families here, especially in our district, is going to be opportunity,”  Rodolfo Urby, Southwest High School’s aviation director, told KSAT TV in San Antonio last week.  “You know, exposing them to all sorts of different things they may not have been exposed to.”

Another high school with a new drone program is Frankford High School in northeast Philadelphia, a largely African-American area of the city marked by gangs, drugs and persistent poverty.   Josh Bergerson, the aviation and earth science teacher who heads the Frankford Aviation Academy, says interest in the school’s drone program has doubled since drones were first introduced.  Promising kids want out –  and drones, which require less training and time to master than traditional fixed wing aircraft – are a potential fast track to mobility, he says.

“When I came in, the focus was on aviation, small aircraft but since I’ve been here the last couple years, we’ve expanded it to drones.” Sixty kids have already signed up for next year, Bergerson says.

One of those kids is Anasia Prado, who says she never imagined a career in aviation, much less becoming a pilot.  She figured she’d end up in a low-skill job in the “hood,” like most of her high school friends.  But the opportunity to get specialized drone pilot training thrilled her.

“When I heard about all the cool things and the cool benefits that come with the [drone] class, I was hooked,” she says. “You have to work hard, you can’t just give 50%, you have to give 110%, but it’s really worth it.”

Many more high schools would like to jump into the drone field but they face not only funding obstacles but a lack of qualified teachers.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires all high school drone pilot education programs to be taught by teachers that have received their own Part 107 license to fly.

Currently, two of the best known drone teacher training programs are Drone Legends in Marlton, NJ and the Anchorage, AK-based Advanced Aerial Education (AAE).  Urby and Bergerson are graduates of these schools, and many more are popping up each year.  But given the demand, many more are needed.

Some high schools do far more than teach STEM and basic drone flying skills.  In 2019, two AAE-trained teachers won approval for a comprehensive, two-year, four-semester drone program at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs.  During the first year students learned to fly, design and build their own drones. In the second year, they received instruction in photography, videography and land surveying. Eventually, they learned how to read aviation maps, studied the effects of weather on drone performance and were tested on FAA drone regulations before getting formally certified to fly commercially.

Schools adopting drone education programs – the precise number is still unclear, perhaps hundreds, nationwide, primarily at the high school level – report overwhelming support from parents as well as from students.  The biggest challenge seems to be acquiring enough drones for students to train on, and then ensuring that adequate indoor space exists to fly them, especially during inclement winter months.

While gyms and cafeterias are ideal, many teachers report that even larger classrooms can accommodate them, with proper planning and adequate storage space.  Those schools still without funding for drones continue to rely on flight simulators, a second-best solution.

The FAA, despite insisting on high standards for drone school curricula, is actively encouraging high schools to adopt drone education programs.  And as drone technology advances, the skill level required to fly drones competently, especially with more complex applications, is higher than ever.  Without more advanced training, shortages of skilled drone pilots, already apparent in the military sector, could begin spreading elsewhere, officials fear.

In recognition of the need for a skilled UAV workforce, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 also specifically instructed the FAA to establish a collegiate training initiative program for drones.  The initiative also called for designation of consortia of public, 2-year institutions of higher education as “Community and Technical College Centers of Excellence in Small Unmanned Aircraft System Technology Training.”

Not all students trained to become drone pilots at the high school level go on to pursue college-level studies.  For many, especially those without the resources to finance college education, a high school diploma and an FAA pilot’s license is all they need to start working, at least part-time, in the drone industry.

But drone pilot training programs are also popping up at a growing number of four-year schools.  The New England Institute of Technology lists 11 “accredited” colleges with a full-blown drone curriculum – including schools at the master’s and PhD levels.   Some schools like Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida offer military as well as civilian training.  At Kansas State University in Salinas, KS,  graduating students even have the option to participate on a limited basis in actual U.S. military missions.

But the primary focus of collegiate drone pilot training programs is unquestionably commercial aviation.  At Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Oregon, graduating students are required to spend one week at a UAV company to learn the real-life challenges, processes and standard operating procedures of commercial drone piloting.  Job offers from these same companies, anxious to fill slots not only for drone pilots but for drone designers, mechanics, data analysts and flight controllers, usually follow, school officials say.

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