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Chandler-Gilbert Community College embraces emerging technologies through drone pilot program

Chandler-Gilbert Community College is exploring future technology and creating new job opportunities for students with its recently-developed Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Pilot Training program.

“This is going to create quite a few jobs… because we’re at the beginning stage of this UAS market,” said Eric Snyder, chair of the Aviation and Applied Technology Division at Chandler-Gilbert. “They’re expecting huge growth in this market.”

Drone technology is an emerging solution in a variety of industries including construction, agriculture, structural engineering, land inspections, film, marketing, law enforcement and others.

“Think about Amazon, you know, Amazon’s wanting to deliver packages with these drones,” Snyder said. “Think about all the agriculture here in the Valley. Basically, the crop-dusters will be doing the crop dusting by UAS. You know, standing off to the side watching a drone spray the crops instead of having an aircraft come in and having to try to get down close enough to the crops to do the spraying. It just makes sense.”

Snyder said he expects the drone industry to create over 2,000 direct industry jobs by 2025, with a total market impact of more than 4,000 jobs in Arizona alone. California is projecting greater than double those numbers, he said.

Dr. Gabriela Rosu, dean of instruction at Chandler-Gilbert, said she believes drone technology is “the next internet, because it touches every aspect of the industry.” Drones don’t just need pilots — they require mechanics to maintain the aircraft; software developers to design the flight systems and user interface; and cybersecurity to prevent tampering or hacking.

“The drone program that we are going to launch in the spring, it also touches cybersecurity, a new program that we have,” Rosu said. “While students fly the drones, the students in IT will learn how to hack into the drone. So it’s just [driven] by the industry demands, and we see the opportunity for extending the aviation program.”

Chandler-Gilbert started the UAS program with a $1.3 million grant from the Maricopa County Community College District. Rosu said the program fits naturally with existing programs at the college, including law enforcement and electric utilities. The program will be incorporated with the existing aviation program at the Williams campus next to Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.

“We’ve got a flight department already, and we’ve got people that are experienced with the UAS market,” Snyder said. “We’ve got people that have actually worked in the industry… already working in the aviation division, as far as instructors go. So both aviation flight and aviation maintenance is moving this forward.”

The college is building a new facility to accommodate drone pilot training — a 50-foot-tall, 30,000-square-foot structure with netting overhead that will serve as the flight training center.

“That will be where the students fly the drones outside in a controlled environment,” Rosu said. “Also, we will have a simulation lab [where] students will learn how to fly the drone on simulation software.”

Upon completion of the program, students will be licensed to fly drones commercially and recreationally, a certification from the Federal Aviation Authority called Part 107. The community college program is an affordable alternative to training offered by private companies.

“It provides them a certification to fly the UAS aircraft commercially,” Snyder said. “Anybody that will get paid to fly a drone will need that certification. Think of the movies that are being made here in Arizona. If they’re filming with a drone, they’re going to need to have a certification to legally fly that drone.”

Drones will continue to play a pivotal role in major Arizona industries, from agriculture to law enforcement to electric utilities, Snyder said.

Arizona is fifth in the nation behind California, Texas, Florida and Washington for UAS industry growth, and drones are going to have a “huge impact” on employment in the state, Rosu said. Arizona’s aviation-friendly weather and financial incentives for new businesses make it an attractive place to develop new technology, she said.

“You already see an impact if you look just in the East Valley, how many corporations moved their headquarters or moved part of their industry to Arizona,” she said.

Graham Bosch

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