A Middle Georgia school is helping train skilled workers for a high-demand and high-flying industry.
Students at Putnam County High School can become commercially licensed drone pilots through a new career pathway there.
The drone, or unmanned aircraft, industry is expected to have an economic impact of about $82 billion across the United States by 2025, according to a report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration predicts that the number of commercially licensed drone pilots will increase from 20,000 in 2016 to as many 400,000 by 2021.
Putnam High’s drone program was created last year through a partnership with Mercer University and Advanced Airspace Management, a company that provides aerial imaging services. Principal Marc Dastous said there are a few other drone programs in the country, but he didn’t know of any others that involve collaboration with a business.
The curriculum for the two-semester program, which can accommodate 15 students, was developed by Advanced Airspace Management co-founder John Granich and Mercer electrical and computer engineering professor Anthony Choi, who is also involved with AAM. Granich and Glenn Morris, chairman of the the high school’s Career Technical Agriculture Education department, provide instruction for the courses.
Students master flying on computer simulators and lower-end models before taking higher-quality drones into the air, Dastous said. With support from Parrish Construction, the school was able to build its own drone port — an airport for drones — with a runway and landing area in the spring.
Students get a foundation of the basics as they learn about FAA rules and regulations, aircraft safety, weather, navigation, airport operations, aircraft stability, time management for flights, downloading data, taking photos, and air cinematography, surveying and geology.
They also take the FAA’s commercial licensing test, which is required to fly drones for work. Twelve students participated in the pathway last year, and nine are now FAA certified, Granich said.
By going through this program at Putnam High, students are able to get hands-on experience with real technology and see how math, science and engineering apply to the real world, Choi said.
“You can have a social effect on the world through engineering, and that’s a message that we really need to get across at the middle school and high school level, because I think we’re missing that,” he said.
Students can take their drone knowledge into the military or private industry or learn more advanced skills in college, Granich said. Three Putnam High graduates who completed the pathway are attending Mercer on engineering scholarships, and another one is going to an aeronautical college.
Drones can be used to do jobs related to agriculture, construction, mining, law enforcement, cinematography, news reporting and the military, among others. For example, drone pilots might be contracted to survey crops, inspect buildings or record aerial footage for films.
Granich hopes the career pathway at Putnam High will produce at least 10 certified drone pilots each year. Students can get placed in jobs at Advanced Airspace Management or other companies across the state and country. The average drone pilot earns $100 to $150 an hour.
“We want to build the workforce in our area,” Dastous said. “We need to do what’s in the best interest of the kids. If a student can leave with a skill that they can earn a living with and be self-sufficient, we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to.”
Advanced Airspace Management will transition out of the drone program this year and leave it in the hands of the school to fully manage, Granich said. He and Choi plan to pitch the curriculum to other school districts in Georgia.
“We wanted to leave a lasting impact, an actual built-from-the-ground-up curriculum that would stay at the school and, if successful, then be transferred to other school systems,” Choi said. “We knew that the (unmanned airspace systems) industry was a booming industry.”
As a separate project, Choi and Granich also plan to ask legislators to fund an initiative to train 300 veterans and those with leg amputations to become drone pilots.
Partnership with NASA
Mercer University is able to provide other education outreach activities to the Putnam school system through grant funding from NASA.
On March 23, the high school hosted an unmanned systems balloon launch and workshops with experts from the Kennedy Space Center and NASA, Choi said. Thirteen Mercer engineering students and Putnam High School students in the drone program also were involved.
High-altitude balloons, equipped with technology to collect and transmit data, can travel to heights where the atmosphere is thin and conditions are similar to space. About 300 students were on site for the launch, and the rest of the county’s students and plenty of others watched the event through a live-stream online.
NASA is supporting Mercer in creating a Center for High Altitude Payload Delivery Systems, through which schools could design and submit high-altitude balloon experiments. Putnam County will be one of the first school systems to try it out, Choi said.
In addition, Mercer is collaborating with NASA on a project to track and live-stream on NASA TV the total solar eclipse Aug. 21. (Check back with The Telegraph as the date nears to learn more about the project.)