The sky's the limit

UAS program takes flight at Cochise College

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SIERRA VISTA — The flood gates are primed to open on the civilian Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) industry and 10 students at Cochise College plan to be among the first students with a targeted degree to operate them.

Once they all complete the introductory classes, these students will get to apply their new skills hands-on by running scenarios on the school’s new UAS simulators and taking control of a real Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), the 2.5 pound carbon-fiber Maveric. These final courses will come up for governing board approval in September and are anticipated to start in January, which would enable to college to produce its first UAS graduates in May.

It’s an exciting time to be learning these skills, with the uncertainty of what the emerging industry will look like only adding to the thrill, said Ethan Katlan, one of the first 10 UAS students at the college.

“I’m sure it’s going to just blow up,” Katlan said.

Arizona is in the running to be one of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS test sites, with Cochise County hosting one of three potential sites in the state. Congress has stipulated that the FAA integrate these unmanned vehicles into the national airspace in late 2015, which is when the FAA hopes to start granting permission for private entities to use them.

As for what they’ll be used for, the sky’s the limit.

Agriculture, forestry, law enforcement and water conservation are among the applications Don Wirthlin, the college’s UAS instructor, foresees opening up. But right now nobody really knows what they might be used for.

They’re being built strong enough to fly into hurricanes and tornados, while some have already been used to sense gas inside volcanos, he said.

“What I would love to do is work for Game and Fish,” Katlan said. They might use these systems to survey animals and track migrations.

“The technology is just amazing,” he said.

Katlan has wanted to fly ever since he was a kid, recalling an obsession with “Top Gun.”

The first time he got to fly was exhilarating and nerve-racking.

“Like nothing I’ve experienced before … edge of your seat adrenaline rush,” he said.

He studied aviation at Coconino Community College but hear about the UAS industry through his girlfriend’s stepdad who operates them for the military.

Currently, the college requires its UAS program degree-seekers to hold an FAA issued private pilot certifcate but is prepared to required a commercial pilot certificate if the FAA moves in that direction, said Belinda Burnett, director of the college’s aviation department.

The college’s mission is to make the UAS program a center of excellence in UAS training.

“We anticipate the program to grow each semester in enrollment as the news of growth of civil applications for UAS continues to influence potential students,” she said.

The Innovation Campus Project has brought the college together with K-12 schools, University of Arizona South, Fort Huachuca and Northrop Grumman in an effort to produce the technically-skilled students needed in industries like this.

“We are very excited about our potential partnerships with other institutions and companies. This is a new and emerging market for civil use and we are making every effort to be prepared to serve our students,” Burnett said.

This is the seventh time that Wirthlin, who has been involved in aerial surveillance and recon since 1975, has set up a UAS program but it’s his first civilian one.

Pulling out the Maveric, he demonstrated how the school’s new UAV is operated with an adapted PlayStation controller, with one joystick controlling the flight and the other operating a rotating camera. On a small laptop screen, the operator can also see through a camera positioned on the nose of the vehicle.

The simulators are controlled with keyboards and joysticks, the kind old computer-gamers will be familiar with.

The younger generations are used to using these type of controls, Wirthlin said. But his course goes beyond just piloting the craft and using its camera.

He will run the students through complete scenarios, asking them to find specific data and communicate in a report that laymen can understand, Wirthlin said. His goal is to build solid candidates for employment.

Karlo Favela, who graduated from high school in Agua Prieta, Mexico, last year, signed up for the UAS program because of what he has heard about the up-and-coming jobs.

He’s especially interested in law enforcement because his father and grandfather were police officers, he said.

“It’s going to really bring a lot of new students, not every college has this,” Favela said.  

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