Schools Offering Drone Programs, but Learning to Fly Is Just the Start

At least a half-dozen other colleges, including the aviation behemoth Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, as well as Kansas State University, the University of North Dakota and Lewis University in Illinois, have gone all in, by offering degrees in drones. And 23 schools in the United States, Canada and Britain have partnered with the F.A.A. to carry out drone-based research programs.

“It feels like the beginning of aviation all over again,” said Maxine Lubner, a professor of management at Vaughn.

Ángel Espinoza, a 20-year-old engineering student, saw his first drone as it was flying over an event at Cetys, the private technology college he attends in Baja California in northern Mexico.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” said Mr. Espinoza, who is from Mexicali. With a fellow student, Alfredo Martinez, the two set out to build and fly a drone in a national competition. A propeller broke during their first race. A year later, they placed third in a field of six. By objective standards, they did not do well, but that is not how Mr. Espinoza views his experience.

“With drones, you apply a lot of things — not just programming and electronics, but mechanics and applying thermal energy,” he said. “You can revolutionize the drones and use them for other things, like research.”

While Cetys has a reputation for turning out graduates ready for jobs in industrial and mechanical engineering, the drone courses prepare them for positions with new titles, like innovation engineer and new prototypes designer, said Luis Carlos Básaca, a program coordinator at Cetys School of Engineering.

“Working with drones makes our students use all their creativity because they have to think out of the box,” Mr. Básaca said. “They have to think, ‘Which material can make this lighter, more resilient? Which type of motors should I use?’” he added. “These types of questions are very complex. If one, two or three students can build a drone by themselves, they are using their brains to the maximum.”

Other educators who use drones in the classroom say Mr. Espinoza’s hit-and-miss experience is not only typical, but also beneficial.

“It’s about not being afraid to fail,” said Steven Cohen, a teacher at the Applied Technology High School in Bergen County, N.J. “Students say, ‘We didn’t do it right, darn.’ But I say, ‘It’s great that you didn’t do it right, because now you learned from doing it wrong.’”

It is difficult to quantify how many schools are using drones in the classroom, although the number is on the increase and more students are demanding these classes, according to Ms. Lubner of Vaughn. Like Cetys, Vaughn offers drone classes that are incorporated into other majors.

If anything has held back such education it is the F.A.A.’s restrictive operating rules, some drone proponents say. With few exceptions, drones must fly only in daylight, within the pilot’s line of sight, below 400 feet and away from airports and populated areas.

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“For years we were kneecapped by the F.A.A.’s unwillingness to do anything except regulate [drones] out of business,” said Patrick Sherman, a drone pilot and industry consultant in Oregon. “The F.A.A. has made big strides” and that’s good, he said, because the United States has “a more complex airspace system than anyone else.”

Still, the limitations have been challenging for drone programs.

“If you go outside in a place like New York City it’s impossible to find a place to legally fly,” Ms. Alkalay said. If students “fly in a park and it’s not approved, they’re subject to being hassled or arrested or worse.” As a result, some college students must fly indoors in gyms and auditoriums.

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Students from Cape May County Technical High School use their cellphones for testing after a drone launch at Woodbine Municipal Airport in New Jersey last month.

Credit
Mark Makela for The New York Times

So those from Cape May County Technical Schools in New Jersey were fortunate that this winter they were invited to help a commercial drone operator, American Aerospace Technologies, test the feasibility of using drones to provide airborne cell service in areas where land-based connectivity doesn’t exist. American Aerospace has an F.A.A. waiver allowing it to fly drones at higher altitudes and outside the pilot’s view.

The high school students were enlisted to “measure the footprint of the coverage on the ground,” said David Yoel, chief executive of American Aerospace. The teens aren’t flying the drones but they are learning how the machines can push technology forward, he said.

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The students from Cape May County Technical High School gather for instructions before the drone launch.

Credit
Mark Makela for The New York Times

“The future of unmanned aviation is extremely exciting,” Mr. Yoel said. “The market is surging and promises to be as significant as the personal computer revolution and the internet revolution combined.”

Now, most commercial drones are used for aerial photography and cartography, along with inspection of rails, crops, towers, pipelines and power lines. A number of businesses are, like the F.A.A., partnering with universities to find ways to do more with drones.

That captured the attention of Mr. Espinoza, who decided to give up on drone competitions and concentrate on a graduate research project. This year, he will participate in the flights of a drone equipped with a special laser camera to create a three-dimensional map of the Cetys campus.

As important as drones are today for their role in the evolution of aviation, it is their potential for that kind of research and data-gathering that holds the most promise for students, Mr. Sherman said.

“The excitement of the flying machines will fade away, and it will be all about what can the drones do for us.”

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