Aviation schools rev up drone piloting

| Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, 10:30 p.m.

The schedule at Moore Aviation fills up daily, as pilots in training stack up the hours needed to get licensed. On this afternoon, with cold air and clear skies, 12 of 13 planes are flying above Beaver County Airport.

A growing number of students at the Chippewa flight school are here not so they can train to fly commercial planes but because they want to fly a different kind of aircraft: unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts the industry will create more than 100,000 jobs and provide an economic impact of $82 billion in the next decade.

Flight schools are taking note.

“We're slammed with students,” said Rob Schattauer, chief instructor at Moore Aviation. “That's becoming a big thing.”

Under Federal Aviation Administration rules, drone operators navigating commercial airspace must be licensed pilots and obtain special waivers from the agency. Schattauer estimates about 40 percent of his pilot students in the fall semester were studying to be drone operators.

Some students enrolled in the unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, program at Community College of Beaver County. This year, the program has 24 students — three times the number when it began in 2013, said Bill Pinter, dean of aviation sciences at CCBC.

“By and large, the United States isn't producing nearly enough UAV operators who are trained, skilled and certified to meet projected demand,” Pinter said. “This is just going to continue to grow and develop.”

Pilots and pilot trainers emphasize that programs are meant for those who want to make a career in the field. There's likely to be demand for it: Energy, surveying and military sectors increasingly are using drones, Pinter said.

Thomas Trautman, 21, of Coraopolis has been training with Schattauer at Moore for almost a decade. He's planning to pursue a commercial pilot license, but in the meantime, he is entering the professional drone operator industry, citing the versatility in potential job opportunities.

“There's a million and one applications for them,” he said. “You can fly over a structure and within a couple hours have a whole 3-D rendering.”

FAA guidelines set up in 2012 provide certain requirements for commercial drone use, including a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval, or a special authorization called a Section 333 exemption and Certificate of Waiver or Authorization.

Shawn Theiss is president of Theiss Aviation, which partners with CCBC for the drone training program. His company designs and builds drones, and he sees the growing use across all sectors. He expects more FAA regulations that will require hobbyist drone users to take a test in order to gain legal approval.

“The FAA has been pushing for years to try to get a real grip on how effective UAVs are and how they're going to impact national airspace,” he said. “They've been a little bit behind, but they are making progress.”

At the University of North Dakota, Al Palmer runs the Center for UAS Research, Education and Training at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. The drone program started with five students several years ago and now has 187, Palmer said.

The school says it offered the first four-year unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, degree in the world. In addition to operations training, the program trains in drone construction and requires students to build a working drone before graduation.

“We talk about unmanned aircraft, but in no way are they unmanned,” Palmer said. “You're talking about well over 100 people to get an aircraft up to fly a mission. You need the people that maintain the equipment, the data.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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