- Associated Press - Saturday, April 28, 2018

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (AP) - Professor Kuldeep Rawat entered an Elizabeth City State University lab where every table had a drone.

There was a spider-like black edition with rotors for legs, a streamline fixed wing unit that looked like it was from Star Wars and a simple craft made by students with the electronics exposed.

Each had a purpose in the rapidly expanding field of unmanned aircraft, from bridge inspections to farm field management to storm damage surveys, said Rawat, director of the ECSU aviation science program.

“We can train our students in all these areas,” he said. “We want our graduates to be entrepreneurs.”

ECSU began offering drone courses last fall as part of its four-year aviation degree. Students get prepared to take the Federal Aviation Administration certification exam, Rawat said. In 2019, the college plans to offer what would be the state’s only four-year degree in unmanned aircraft systems. ECSU already offers the only four-year aviation degree in North Carolina.

The 16 students in the unmanned aircraft classes learn to fly drones, interact with air traffic control and use different payloads and sensors such as cameras. They get training in interpreting weather and when and where to safely operate their aircraft.

Junior Weston Smith is enrolled under a Coast Guard scholarship program in which he will earn a degree in aviation in 2020 with a concentration on unmanned aircraft systems. Drones fit with his interests in several fields.

“I can have a foot in all of this,” Smith said.

The university plans to build an outdoor flying facility with a net, sort of like a giant batting cage. Students can fly some drones costing well over $25,000 each in a safe area, yet still deal with outdoor conditions like staying airborne in strong winds.

Drone pilots are a hot commodity, according to an FAA aerospace forecast.

The industry could need more than 300,000 new pilots in the next five years, the report said. In 2016, the FAA reported 42,000 commercial or government drones. The number grew to beyond 110,000 by the end of 2017, and the FFA predicts growth to a high exceeding 700,000 by 2022.

Nearly half of commercial drones are used in real estate photography, about a quarter for utility inspections and 17 percent for agricultural applications, the FAA report said. Government agencies are increasingly using drones for search and rescue and storm damage surveys.

“Data is the new oil,” said Aron Bechiom, the unmanned aircraft lab technician at ECSU and a former Navy drone pilot.

Rawat is enthusiastic when he describes what these hand-launched, remote control aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds can do.

A drone can fly over a farm field with an infrared camera and spot specific problems in precise areas within thousands of acres. It maps and stores the information. Then the data can be transferred via thumb drive from the drone to the tractor, Rawat said.

“Now you’re telling the tractor where to go and spray,” he said.

Drones can haul tanks of insecticide and spray within inches of the crop at precise areas, he said.

He lifted an aircraft that can carry a camera with the ability to rotate in a full circle. That, he said, is ideal for inspecting wind turbines. It can fly among the tall towers and their blades, hover closely and with special cameras spot even the tiniest of cracks, Rawat said.

The same goes for bridges.

Some mounted cameras can map in 3-D, which is valuable along the coastline for measuring beach erosion. Drones can be fitted with cameras that differentiate between millions of items following a disaster, such as a tornado or a flood, and help locate survivors.

The lab is just the beginning, Rawat said.


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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