HAMLET — It’s tough to become a pilot when the sun’s glare makes it impossible to even see your craft, much less where it’s going.
But from 4-6 p.m. every Thursday and during a bit of practical lab time on Saturdays, that’s exactly what eight high school students are doing on a stretch of grass at Richmond Community College: staring into the sun while they earn their pilots’ licenses to fly drones.
“You’re looking up,” Chad Osborne instructed three student pilots on Thursday afternoon. “You’re looking for birds. You’re looking for interference” — something that might fly into the path of the drone.
Osborne, who also teaches at Ashley Chapel Education Center, had his hands full training the three youngsters in managing several tasks at once — flying the drone, looking for trouble, staying on tasks and keeping the sun out of their eyes.
At one point, he plopped his own floppy hat atop the head of loquacious student Chad Mayfield, whose hand wasn’t enough to keep the sun out of his eyes as he played lookout for fellow student Aaron Brown.
And when Brown made the drone take off too soon, Osborne rebuked him.
“You failed,” he said flatly. “What did you do wrong?
“You are the pilot in charge. You have to say, ‘Clear!’”
A seminar sparks an idea
The class itself took only a semester to develop from idea to launch.
Butch Farrah of RCC’s Small Business Center invited colleague Jeff Epps to hear Probyn Thompson, an Air Force veteran and owner of Air Probe UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) of Fayetteville, speak at a conference for entrepreneurs last January. Epps, who manages RCC’s summer and Saturday STEM camps, was intrigued immediately.
After attending the lecture and brainstorming a bit with Thompson, he marched right to the office of Cynthia Reeves, associate dean for grants and special projects at RCC.
Wouldn’t it be cool, Epps asked, if we could start a drone-pilot program to build on our STEM program? (“STEM” stands for “science,” “technology,” “engineering” and “mathematics.”)
How much would it cost? Reeves inquired.
When RCC subsequently won a grant from Duke Energy, the program launched.
Epps then mined the rolls of STEM camp participants to come up with eight possible participants — five boys and three girls; seven public school students and one home-schooler; freshmen to seniors. He likes to think he has planted the seed for a future diverse industry.
“They’ve got quite a load,” Epps said, ticking off the requirements for class time, Saturday practice, online independent study and practice tests. “They’ve all come in and said, ‘Boy, this is a lot.’” Especially on top of their regular class loads.
Not that it’s a competition, but so far, Epps said, the girls are flying better than the boys: They handle the controls more patiently, which makes for smoother flights.
“We focus a little bit better than the boys,” Mikaili Sweatt, a student at Richmond Senior High School, offered by way of explanation.
And that’s just the start
If they pass the federal certification tests — someone as young as 16 may become Federal Aviation Administration certified — the students will be some of the youngest drone pilots in the history of a very young industry.
And then, they’ll start their own business, with professional mentors trained by Thompson.
The plans are, Epps said, for the students and instructors to work with RCC’s business department to develop business and marketing plans, and to begin drumming up customers.
“They’re going to get paid something,” Reeves said, but the eight aren’t just learning about drones. “It’s about the teamwork involved: There’s a team of individuals working to do a job.
“That’s a valuable lesson” in itself, she said — that a business must sustain itself. “They (will) understand that there is more than just taking the drone out of the box and sending it up in the air.”
To which Epps added: “They’re becoming licensed pilots, and there’s a level of expectation for them way beyond the hobbyists’.”
What’s in the future?
The only thing the program can do is grow, Epps and Thompson said.
“We have to prepare our younger people today to understand that there is a drastic change in technology” and employment, Thompson said. “If we keep training people in jobs that a machine can do (eventually), they’re gonna be out of work.
“There are more than 300 verticals” that can be examined by air, he said. “Look at all the different pitches and angles.”
Drones can examine rooftops and farm fields, and chart topography, in fractions of the time it would take a person to get somewhere, examine the terrain and map a solution to whatever problem he is trying to solve.
Drones are being used to assess damage for insurance companies, plot accident scenes for the Highway Patrol and deter human trafficking, Thompson said.
Aaron Brown, a student at Richmond Early College, said he didn’t look at himself as a pioneer in a new field — he looked at the money and the beginning of a possible career.
“Any job I wanted, I could use this to help it,” he said of flying drones.
That’s just the point, Thompson said.
“If you can hook a young person into understanding” how drones can be used, he said, some will move toward the more technical area of writing code; others will find less technical applications, such as marketing or accounting. So being a science geek isn’t a necessity.
Just think, Thompson said, even the chi-chi designers Dolce & Gabbana get it.
During their spring show in Milan in February, he said, they used drones to carry their new line of handbags down the runway, drawing worldwide press.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]