New York’s UAlbany College Creates Drone Program For Students

To be a successful university, the institution must develop programs that reflect the current needs of the world. In 2015, New York’s UAlbany introduced the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity (CEHC), that is geared towards the unique issues of homeland security in today’s technologically advanced environment. One of the many areas of study CEHC focuses on is drone technology and applications.

In 2018, CEHC Assistant Professor Brandon Behlendorf was co-teaching a class on the legal and ethical impacts of drones with UAlbany Law Professor Robert Heverly. Upon leaving his office in Richardson Hall one summer afternoon, Professor Behlendorf found an abandoned stairwell that led to a large gymnasium being used as a storage space. He immediately thought that the space would make a great drone training ground. Professor Behlendorf met with CEHC Dean Robert Griffin and learned that the gymnasium had been gathering dust for 40 years. With the dean’s help, Professor Behlendorf coordinated with the Office of Facilities Management to convert the basement space into an indoor drone test center.

“Until now, we were offering hands-on drone flight training to our students outside of the Downtown Campus, which presented a number of challenges due to weather conditions and outdoor flying regulations,” said professor Behlendorf. “The Page Hall gym offers us a year-round space, which is covered, heated, and insulated.” The 2-story, 1,700sq ft drone test zone, filled with obstacle courses and everything needed to work with drones, was launched in March of 2019. At the launching ceremony, Dean Griffin said, “We expect you to come down here and learn how to fly, how to crash, learn how to build, and frankly, learn how to learn.”

To become successful in the drone industry, you need a place to do as Dean Griffin said, fly, crash, and learn. Kick-starting the program, UAlbany CEHC alumni and authorized DJI seller, Joseph Scaperrotta, donated 12 new DJI drones to the center. Included in the space is a Maker’s Lab complete with a 3D printer to custom build drone parts. The drone test zone is also set up with cameras and sensors to collect drone operational data. It is open to students in the CEHC program, representatives participating in Homeland Security and emergency training programs, and most recently, local high school students.

In a pilot program, students from Hudson High School and Troy High School had the opportunity to experience the Page Hall basement drone lab on October 21, 2021. The students are studying under Dr. Marcie Fraser’s, an adjunct professor at CEHC, New Visions Questar III course. In a class for advanced students, Dr. Fraser teaches students how technology like drones and robotics are used to enhance homeland security. Dr. Fraser wanted to give his students the hands on learning needed to see just how applicable their education could be.

And it paid off as participating Troy High School senior Dreven Sesay said. “What we are doing today in the drone lab actually can help us understand what a terrorist would use their weaponry for and how we can counteract it,” Dreven said. “I got here and then started learning that I can use my skills in technology out in the real world to have a real effect on people and save lives.” As a part of the program, Dreven and his fellow students get to take courses that will be applied towards their college credits, preparing them for the future. Dr. Fraser is already accepting applicants for the upcoming year to participate in the program.

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