Virginia invests in drone research and education, cites jobs potential

Virginia Community College Drone Courses

This post originally appeared on https://gcn.com/articles/2016/07/26/virginia-drone-education.aspx.

[Editor’s Note: Chris Carter, the deputy director of VSGC, shared that the group plans on having drone courses at two Virginia Community Colleges by fall 2017.]

The Old Dominion University Research Foundation and the Virginia Space Grant Consortium (VSGC) are flying high after receiving funding from the National Science Foundation to start courses at Virginia community colleges to study unmanned aerial systems.

The $899,477 in backing was announced July 20 in a joint statement from the offices of Virginia Sens.  Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D).  The funding will go toward education for unmanned systems operations  technicians — a skillset that is increasingly in demand for government agencies and the private sector alike.

Chris Carter, the deputy director of VSGC, said the research for implementing the award has already begun, and the groups plan to have courses up and running at two Virginia community colleges by fall 2017.

Until then, Carter and his colleagues will be going into the field to talk with people who are already using UAS on job sites. These conversations will give them a framework for the knowledge and skills that colleges will need to provide to students interested in drone-related careers. That framework, in turn, will shape the curriculum for the classes, which Carter expects to have completed by Oct. 1.

Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap, Va., and Thomas Nelson Community College in Hampton, Va., will be the first schools to use the new curriculum. To prepare instructors, Carter said,  professional development training will be provided for faculty across the Virginia Community College System starting in the summer of 2017.

The drone industry could create 100,000 jobs, about $82 billion in economic activity and $482 million in tax revenue in the United States between 2015 and 2025, according to a 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“Nearly every employment sector will be using [UAS] in the future,” Carter said, noting that the agriculture, construction, photography and environmental analysis are already using drones.

Kaine and Warner did not directly help in securing the funding, but voiced support for the research and praised the employment potential. The grant is part of Virginia’s effort to create a “workforce pipeline” straight into the drone economy for both vehicle operators and industry researchers.

“Unmanned aircraft systems are becoming increasingly important in many industries, and have the potential to impact all sectors of the U.S. economy,” Warner said in a statement.

In July 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the first federally approved delivery of medical supplies via UAS. The drone delivered pharmaceuticals to rural Wise County, Va., a milestone that Kaine highlighted in the funding announcement.

“Virginia has already seen the remarkable impacts of UAS technology, such as delivering critical medical supplies to communities in remote areas of the Commonwealth,” Kaine said in a statement. “Today’s funding will fuel breakthrough research and innovation that will position Virginia as a leader and innovator in UAS technology for the future.”

But Virginia is far from the only state to consider drones as a potential boost to the economy and employment numbers. Kansas has a new state-level employee with the title of director of unmanned aircraft systems.  The state hopes 22-year Air Force veteran Bob Brock will pilot the state into more use of drone technology as head of Kansas’ new unmanned aircraft systems program.

The FAA, meanwhile, has partnered with state agencies in both Maryland and North Dakota to study the national implementation of the emerging technology. Researchers in North Dakota are studying the feasibility of using drones to take soil and crop measurements while Maryland’s program, like Virginia’s, is a partnership with state universities to focus on workforce development.

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