Under the Wikipedia entry for “drone,” you will find such words as “chemical,” “warfare,” “target” and “humanoid” – words that send a chill down one’s spine when considering their recent presence in the media. Drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as they are technically referred to, are being heavily manufactured and put to use by the U.S. government, and in countries throughout the world.
However, these pilot-less flying devices, which carry anything from video to infrared cameras, are being used well beyond our military.
On July 30, WinterGreen Research, a market research and analysis company in software, hardware, security and telecommunications, reported the commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market would see “explosive growth,” an increase of over 700% by 2018. This translates as a growth from a $363.7 million market to $2.8 billion.
The report cites use by environmentalists, human rights activists, journalists, farmers, architects, engineers and more, taking them—literally—to new heights.
“There’s obviously a lot of activity in the military when it comes to UAVs, but the reality is, that’s only a very small segment of what (UAVs) can do,” said Aaron Cook, aviation program director at Northwestern Michigan College. “Globally, we’re just now catching up to countries that are not only further ahead in production, but in use.”
What about NMC students and the military? “There are some jobs right now that are defense-contract positions, but the students aren’t planning on going longterm with the military,” said Cook, “it’s just where the jobs are. Once the FAA opens up regulations, that’s where the jobs are.
“How many students come out and fly for the military versus commercial? Right now, the commercial aspect is just starting to open up.”
Northwestern Michigan College is one among just a handful of schools in the country that offers courses in unmanned aerial systems. Launched three years ago, program enrollment has since doubled, offering students the opportunity to learn about UAS rules, types of UAVs, regulations, construction, operation and capabilities.
These capabilities are endless, said Cook. “In Japan, they’re being used for crop dusting. In Canada, they’re used for fire stack inspection, along with windmills and bridge inspections,” he said. “As far as capabilities go, let’s take the example of sugar beats. In Michigan, they are harvested and then piled up before they’re processed. As sugar beats rot, they put off heat. You can use infrared cameras on a UAV to decide which pile to use next so beats aren’t wasted.
“Another example would be communication. Let’s say there’s a big event happening in an area that would increase cell phone tower usage. By using a blimp UAV, you could increase cell phone capabilities.”
The design of a UAV would depend on its job, with “drones” coming in all shapes and sizes.
“They’re building the aircraft around the sensor or mission performed. Because of that, you’re getting very unique designs,” said Cook. “We have a Dragonflyer X6, which is actually a six bladed helicopter. You could have some with vertical takeoff or a fixed wing which can weigh as little as a pound to having a wing span equal to that of a 737; and everything in between.
“Some are catapult launched, others are hand launched… some take off on a typical runway, some are retrieved by a net. A few are designed to practically crash as part of landing.”
For students who dream of becoming a pilot who do not meet certain health standards or even become motion sickness while flying, the UAS courses allow them to still become involved in the aviation program, with their feet firmly planted on the ground.
Some major companies are already seriously considering utilizing UAVs in place of man-operated flights, including FedEx, said Cook.
“The NMC aviation department wanted to look ahead and say, ‘Okay when a student goes through our program, what will keep them in a viable position in the next 20 years?’ This gives them the option in the case of their job possibly being replaced by UAS.”
So will our commercial flight from Detroit to Minnesota be flown by a pilot…from the ground?
“Not any time soon,” Cook said. “But, we’ve all been on the tram at Disney World and those are unmanned, and we’re okay with it. The same goes for cars. We are trusting computers even more when it comes to operation.”
And when it comes to drones patrolling our skies? “To put it in perspective, the FAA has regulations and we are extremely restricted compared to other countries,” Cook replied. “There’s certainly a lot more publicity on using unmanned aerial vehicles; and has made the public more aware. As the FAA allows more flights to occur and changes rules, you’ll see a lot more (civilian) activity.
“When we look at aviation in general terms, the Wright brothers figured out what a wing could do. Then came the jet engine,” he continued. “I’d say this is the next wave of technology equivalent to what the jet engine has done for aviation.”
There is still room available in all three UAS classes this fall, which include Introduction to UAS, UAS Flight School and UAS Ground School. Although there is no licensing required through the FAA, Cook recommends students get their private pilot license in addition to UAV training.
“Most companies hiring are looking for that,” he said. “As the industry develops, there will be licensing required.”
All classes are located at the Aero Park Campus, located in Traverse City. For more information on the Unmanned Aerial Systems program at Northwestern Michigan College, visit nmc.edu/programs or call 231-995-1220.