Drone-flying schools are taking off

Posted at 7:00 AM, Feb 17, 2016

Drones are everywhere these days. At Best Buy alone, you can pick one up for about $24. Or, if you want something a little more advanced, $5,345.

Many people are energized by the business prospects of these bug-like flying machines, while others dread the potential invasion of privacy or safety hazards they pose.

Straddling both sides of the drone debate is a nascent industry in educating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) pilots in safety and the evolving regulatory landscape, as well as commercial applications. Course options available to area residents include $3,000 for two eight-hour sessions; about $490 for a two-credit semester college course; and free online classes offered by the Academy of Model Aeronautics.

“We’ve all heard the horror stories, right?” said Deb Norris, senior vice president for workforce development at Sinclair College, referring to close calls between unmanned aircraft systems.

A Federal Aviation Administration fact sheet recently stated: “Incidents involving unauthorized and unsafe use of small, remote-controlled aircraft have risen dramatically. Pilot reports of interactions with suspected unmanned aircraft have increased from 238 sightings in all of 2014 to 780 through August of this year.”

“What will slow the industry down is having all these near-misses and all these problems where people aren’t adhering (to regulations) because there will be a public outcry,” Norris said.

Norris noted that there’s huge potential for economic growth represented by the mini machines. Just a few of the governmental and commercial applications include: geospatial mapping; agricultural-industrial; use by law-enforcement and fire departments; package delivery, and entertainment.

“As the technology enhances,” she said, “you’re going to see more and more applications.”

Meanwhile, for hobbyists, these small, fixed-wing aircrafts are some of the best new toys on — or off — the planet. This category includes the majority of drone users, since commercial drone pilots must have a full pilot’s license, said Dean Toth, senior flight instructor at Flamingo Air in Cincinnati.

“The rationale behind that is you gotta understand airspace, you gotta understand aviation in order to be operating around the other manned air craft.”

Flamingo offers instruction in UAS for recreational users and those considering commercial certification.

Sinclair College in Dayton now offers a two-year associate’s degree in UAS, one of the few community colleges in the country to do so, Norris said.

“We have courses on the workforce-development side — what is it that you need to know about the industry?” Norris said. “We have targeted our (classes) to that professional and commercialization market, although the classes are open to anyone.”

Because there is demand from recreational users, Norris said, “What we’ve done is take many of our workforce courses and turned them into online courses, particularly (classes focusing on) UAS and the current state of regulations.”

With fines for failing to register a drone as high as $27,000 — not to mention the potential for catastrophe, if your drone crashed into a car on the freeway, say — it’s worth knowing the regulations as well as proper use of the machines. The FAA is scrambling to catch up with technological developments, and rules governing drone use are expected to evolve.

Toth predicted, “At some point under part 107 (the regulatory package of laws the FAA is preparing to submit to Congress), you’re going to have to be a licensed operator, go through formal training of some sort” to operate many drones recreationally. For now, formal training is voluntary, though as of Dec. 15, 2015, registration of machines over .55 pounds is required.

At Sinclair, tuition for out-of-county students is about $245 per credit. Introduction to Unmanned Aerial Systems is two credit hours.

Norris said by September 2015, 157 students had declared “UAS as their area of study or their major, and we have had several hundred students so far take the intro to UAS.” The newly established program recently joined the FAA’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence, which advises the federal agency on research and application issues.

For drone pilots just getting their feet wet, so to speak, Flamingo Air, which operates out of Lunken Airport, offers a two-day, 16-hour course that includes purchase of a $1,500 drone.

Dean Toth, the director of drone training at the flight school, said Flamingo began its UAS course Dec. 1, 2015.

Toth said his students will learn “all the regulations that the FAA has currently out there. We’re going to expose them to weather (concepts), weight and balance, aerodynamics, registration, air space (issues).”

“What we’re trying to accomplish with this training is to teach not only operators but communities. So people operate responsibly in the national air space system.”

To this end, the Academy of Model Aeronautics offers a series of online courses free of charge. These include courses for children, safety protocols and general information, such as where it's okay to fly.

For example, piloting within five miles of an “airport” is prohibited — and included in the category of "airport" is any hospital that has a helipad.

“First and foremost,” Toth of Flamingo explained, “the minute you’re one inch off the ground, you’re in federal airspace. There are several remote-control flying facilities in the Cincinnati area. And they have their own regulations, which are more restrictive (than FAA’s). The club that I belong to they require that you’re an AMA member. We go above and beyond because you don’t want it to be a nuisance. You don’t want to be a hassle to the local communities.”