Drones may be flying above Virginia campuses soon


Community colleges are poised to get cutting-edge drone-flying classes.

The National Science Foundation has allocated nearly $900,000 to the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, which is composed of NASA and other institutions promoting aerospace education. The money from the foundation will be used to develop academic pathways in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), like drones, at Virginia community colleges as well as Virginia Tech.

“The demand for UAS technicians in Virginia and the nation is predicted to explode,” said Chris Carter, deputy director at the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and director of the grant program. “This grant will help build course ways and help train faculty to meet that workforce demand.”

Beginning next month, faculty from partnering schools – including 23 schools in the Virginia Community College System – will receive drone-flying training from industry professionals. Officials hope to develop classes around drones that will be available for students at all Virginia community colleges by Fall 2017.

“They’ll be exposed to cutting-edge, emerging technology,” Carter said. “Receiving this training will enable the faculty to increase their technology skills and give them the resources to develop these pathways for students, which will be in huge demand immediately.”

Drones and unmanned aircraft systems are used in nearly every sector of the economy, officials say. Some examples include inspecting buildings and power lines, collecting imagery that traditionally required the use of expensive airplanes, assessing crops in agriculture fields, and collecting geospatial data. Drones can also be used for photography or to scope real estate properties for potential buyers. Major companies, like Amazon, have considered using drones for package delivery.

Carter said community college students are best suited to be trailblazers in the emerging technology, because they will learn defined skills that lead to coveted jobs. He added that the consortium also plans to include high school students in the project.

A portion of the funds will be used to teach high school students how to fly drones. Officials say they plan to host a “UAS Saturday Symposium” for high school students who live in the districts that encompass Mountain Empire and Thomas Nelson Community Colleges beginning next winter.

“Community colleges are in the best position to train technicians, and that’s our goal,” Carter said. “The workforce demand is calling for UAS operations technicians, and we’re going to help teach them.”

Reach the reporter at darlene.aderoju@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @buuukky and @edscoop_news.