The Future of Flying: Michigan College at Forefront of UAV Education

Posted at 6:53 AM, May 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-20 06:53:40-04

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (May 20, 2014) — It’s a controversial topic that raises a number of concerns about safety and privacy – the use of robotic flying vehicles commonly known as “drones.”  But where some people see danger, others are seeing an opportunity – and one Michigan college is already training students in the developing technology.

If you listen to much of the media coverage, you’ll hear that drones are a threat to our safety and privacy.  So why would Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City be teaching students how to fly them?

For Tony Sauerbrey, who runs the college’s unmanned aerial systems program, it’s because the positives outweigh the negatives.  “This one you might deploy over farm fields, or forest fires to monitor where the fire is going,” Sauerbrey said.  “These vehicles can enhance the safety of civilians. Whether its search and rescue, whether it’s disaster relief.”

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The flight instructor says he understands the disconnect between how people tend to view these aircraft and the wide range of uses for drones.  According to Sauerbrey, “It’s a beginning industry, and just like manned aircraft really started in the military during World War I, and more people started finding more civilian uses for it, that’s what’s happening with this kind of technology too.”

The college doesn’t like to call them drones – around here, they’re UAVs, for unmanned aerial vehicles.  The college’s fleet ranges from small battery-run quadcopters to the gas-powered Penguin, which can fly for up to 24 hours and land on its own.

Started a few years ago, this program is one of only a handful in the nation.  But it’s grown so fast that it now rivals the college’s traditional aviation degree.

Carl Rocheleau came back to NMC after years of flying cargo planes.  Now he’s an instructor in the expanding UAS program.  “There are folks that I know of, and some that I have taught and sent through this program that I’m instructing that are starting near six-figure salaries,” said Rocheleau.

The two instructors agreed to teach me the basics of how to pilot their small Dragonfly quadcopter.  I have had some experience with radio-controlled aircraft, and the general concepts are very similar.  But with the UAV, you’re flying with a purpose rather than just for fun.  “We train the students you’re operating a camera platform,” said Rocheleau.  “Speed is not what you want, you want smooth.”

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That’s the basic idea of most UAVs – getting images and data from places that are hard to reach otherwise.  Students learn to use the camera to inspect equipment around an open lab space on the NMC technology campus near the Cherry Capital Airport.

The possible uses for UAVs are nearly endless, but as far as the Federal Aviation Administration is concerned, many of those uses could still be considered illegal. That’s because the industry is so new that there is no certification system or licensing yet for UAVs.  The FAA restricts nearly all commercial uses, including those in things like television news.

But recently, a ten-thousand-dollar fine imposed on a pilot who made a commercial video around the University of Virginia was overturned by a judge, potentially paving the way for legal use of UAVs.  Sauerbrey and other experts are currently working to help the FAA develop standards that will influence the future of the industry.

“We’re all hoping that it’s sooner than later, so we can get this industry going,” said Sauerbrey.  “Because until those regulations are in place, the industry’s really being held back right now.”

But Sauerbrey still admits that getting people to understand the benefits of UAVs will remain a challenge.

“It’s because the technology is so new that the people just don’t understand it yet, they don’t have a really good feel for what it is,” he said.

In the meantime, the college is helping to show that UAVs are more than just fun – they’re a glimpse into the future of flying.

“It’s almost like the Wright brothers all over again,” said Rocheleau.  “We’re starting from the ground floor a whole new industry with this stuff.”

High school students in West Michigan can even get a head start into the UAS program.

Northwestern Michigan College has developed partnerships with schools like the West Michigan Aviation Academy, the Kent Career Tech Center, and K-RESA in Kalamazoo.