Cover story: Drone education is about more than flying
SUBSCRIBER CONTENT: Nov 10, 2017, 4:00am MST Updated: Nov 10, 2017, 6:58am MST
KATHLEEN LAVINE, DENVER BUSINESS JOURNAL
When the Douglas County Search and Rescue team was looking for two missing hikers on the Devil’s Head trail near Sedalia in June, they turned to an unlikely source to find them — a drone.
Collin Caffrey, founder and owner of Angel Hawk LLC, volunteers with Douglas County Search and Rescue in which the team had operated a DJI series drone over the area, eventually spotting the two missing hikers and their dog, who had been lost after taking a wrong turn off the main trail. Both were rescued safely.
“I have some experience in search and rescue,” Caffrey said, adding that drones can be particularly useful in saving avalanche victims. “Using drone technology, that’s an opportunity to hopefully save lives.”
Caffrey, who founded Angel Hawk with his longtime friend Garrett Navarette, flies drones commercially for clients including government agencies, real estate firms and construction companies.
Commercial drone piloting is an infant industry. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in August 2016 implemented new rules for flying “small unmanned aircraft,” or UAS. Part 107 grants pilot licenses specifically for commercial use of drones. Before, only fully-licensed pilots could fly commercial drones.
“That opened a lot of doors,” Caffrey said. “The technology has been increasing and getting better and better...[and] is user-friendly.”
That’s one reason why Metropolitan State University of Denver has become one of the first U.S. colleges to offer classes focused specifically on piloting drones and their uses.
“The skills that are necessary to operate an unmanned aircraft are different than are currently being taught [today] in school and industry. It’s a specialized set of skills,” said Jeff Cozart, owner of Golden-based drone company Juniper Unmanned and an aviation lecturer at MSU Denver, also known as Metro State.
Juniper Unmanned has performed unmanned aircraft missions for engineering companies on six of the world’s seven continents. His drones collect millions of data points and feed those back to the computers operating heavy machinery, which in turn react to the data.
“It can create a road in half the time of and half the cost of traditional methods,” he said.
Companies and government agencies are catching on. Cozart said that with the FAA’s new Part 107 regulations, he expects the drone industry to boom in the coming years.
“We [at MSU Denver] have developed a curriculum that will prep ... students and give them an opportunity in a growing industry,” he said.
That curriculum involves teaching students the FAA’s numerous rules and regulations governing drones, as well as safety requirements and data-driven case studies. Students also get hands-on experience flying drones.
“The students really need to understand the rules of unmanned aircraft and operate within those rules,” Cozart said.
MSU Denver students are also thoroughly prepared for the Part 107 pilot license exam, but Cozart said that’s just part of what they’re taught.
“Mostly that’s just knowledge. ... The [FAA] is evaluating someone’s flying skills. We think of the next job ... [the first job is as] the operator of the unmanned aircraft and the other [job] is the person who understands how to use the data,” Cozart added.
Asked if he was concerned that companies would just purchase commercial drones and do it on their own, Cozart said he experienced that situation first-hand through a contract with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT).
“The company looked at the tech, they purchased one and tried to operate it on their own, but they discovered they needed a highly specialized skillset they didn’t have, and that it required a company like Juniper Unmanned,” he said.
Now, Juniper Unmanned drones are working with CDOT to build roads through rocky Colorado corridors.
And it’s not just government agencies and engineering firms: Journalists, too, are beginning to implement drone technology.
Kip Wotkyns, associate professor of journalism at MSU Denver, this semester rolled out the university’s first drone journalism class.
The class is meant to add to journalists’ toolbox by giving them yet another way to tell the story, Wotkyns said. He cited the recent wildfires that burned more than 8,700 buildings and killed more than 40 people in Northern California.
“If you’re a journalist covering those fires, you can take photos at ground levels, but you can’t grasp that the whole neighborhood is burnt down without that drone to take the birds’ eye views,” Wotkyns said.
Widely available commercial drones — which can range in price from around $500 to more than $2,000 — are equipped with high-definition cameras, allowing journalists to take photos and videos from nearly impossible angles.
“I think it will become yet another tool in the backpack of a journalist,” Wotkyns said. “It’s just that our students will have an advantage over others because they’ll have a license, which will make them more valuable to a news organization.”
And Caffrey, the owner of Angel Hawk, said he thinks classes like Wotkyn’s — which weren’t available when he graduated in 2013 — put Colorado ahead of the game.
“It’s a process getting the word out there...and a lot of education to the general public,” Caffrey said. “We’re looking to tap into all the markets we can.”
Denver Business Journal