A program devoted exclusively to teaching pilots how to fly drones has taken off at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.
Students at the college’s Williams campus can now take introductory courses in flying unmanned aerial vehicles and potentially become a licensed drone pilot.
Dirk Van Voris, one of the program’s instructors, said the program works the same as any other flight school, except the pilots are controlling their vehicles from the ground.
Theirs is the first drone program to operate in the Maricopa Community College District, Van Voris added.
CGCC joins community colleges in Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey in putting together courses that will prepare students for careers in the emerging drone industry.
Van Voris said drones are at the “Wright Brothers stage” in aviation – referencing airplane innovators Orville and Wilbur Wright – because everything about UAVs is still new and developing.
“What we’re trying to do is get ahead of the curb before we get so many people that we don’t know what to do with them,” Van Voris said.
Drones were initially developed to carry out military missions thought to be too dangerous or dull for soldiers. In recent years, the devices have grown in popularity among civilians for recreational, agricultural, and commercial uses.
Consumer drone sales ballooned from about $200 million in 2014 to nearly $800 million in 2016, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
Retailers like Amazon have been investing in the mini helicopters to deliver packages to customers for the last few years. Journalists have found drones useful in safely documenting war zones and natural disasters.
Van Voris said industries are constantly finding new ways to utilize these flying vehicles, creating a demand in the labor market.
“They’re gonna need pilots,” he said. “We hope to fill that void.”
Law enforcement is another sector that could potentially benefit from the college’s classes, as more agencies in the Valley consider using drones to monitor traffic and investigate crime scenes.
A small police agency can’t afford to buy a big helicopter, Van Voris added, so licensing an officer to fly drones could be an affordable substitute for some situations.
The Federal Aviation Administration estimates the fleet of commercial drones flying in the United States will grow three times larger by 2023.
CGCC already offers various degrees and certifications for students wanting to become pilots or technicians within the aviation industry. It currently partners with the University of North Dakota to provide upper-division coursework in pilot training.
The aviation department has been “booming” in recent years, according to CGCC President Greg Peterson, and faculty saw an opportunity to continue growing by delving into drones.
“There’s a lot of applicability of this drone technology across industries,” Peterson said. “We’re really excited about being able to grow that.”
Peterson was hired to lead the college a couple years ago and said he’s tried to strategically partner with local industries to find out their workforce needs.
“We’re really ramping up our ability to be more responsive,” the college president said.
The drones program will eventually allow students to earn a certificate of completion or an associate’s degree in applied sciences.
Students could then transfer to Arizona State University and possibly pursue a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical management technology.
The college’s governing board invested about $1 million in building a flight lab at the Williams campus, which will allow students to safely fly drones within an enclosed space.
Van Voris said the college copied the designs of similar flight labs at Kansas State University and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
The school’s close proximity to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport made it necessary to construct a facility where drones could fly without interrupting the international air space.