Saturday, July 13, 2024

Point taken: Drones make sweeping impact across industries

At Vance-Granville Community College’s soccer drone cage, Ken Wilson (right) joins Derek Parker and his son, Benjamin

This may be the decade when drones become mainstream business tools with artificial intelligence capabilities. There seems to be momentum.

The Federal Aviation Administration counts the number of remote pilots, namely people who have passed the Part 107 exam. This is a significant number because you take the Part 107 course if you want to fly a drone for business purposes, more than just operating a little drone for recreation.

By the end of last year, the FAA says, 368,883 remote pilot certifications had been issued. It predicts commercial drone activities will require more than 472,269 remote pilots by 2028. That 28% increase does not include the operators of large drones. All told, there are probably more than 1 million drones out there, with many used for recreation.

Our large universities are big into drones, such as N.C. State University’s Center for Geospatial Analytics. Elizabeth City State has an unmanned aircraft system degree program. East Carolina University has a research program for drone applications. UNC Chapel Hill has a drone lab, and UNC Wilmington does coastal mapping with drones.

But a lot of the training in North Carolina will happen in the 58 community colleges, which are well-positioned for basic commercial training. Community colleges respond quickly to businesses and public safety organizations that need training.

In late April, I attended Drone Safety Day at Vance-Granville Community College, whose main campus sits off Interstate 85 between Oxford and Henderson. There were lots of drones and presentations about the college’s training programs. During a break, I got a tour of the drone soccer setup, which looks like a batting cage in the basement.  Youngsters fly drones encased in plastic and try to score goals.

“Drone soccer is something for everyone,” says Derek Parker, a Vance County school employee who started the training as a way to engage students in the science and engineering that surrounds building, flying and repairing these machines.

Vance-Granville, which serves more than 5,000 students from four counties, got into drones in 2021 as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to create more ag-business career pathways in a sector that had huge technological potential. In 2022, the college’s foundation won a $50,000 grant from the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship and then received $107,000 from the Cannon Foundation of Concord.

Buying drones for commercial use is not cheap. An Agras T30 spray-and-seed combo drone can run around $20,000 or more. A multi-spectral drone, which can assess the condition of a crop, can run $5,000.

“We’re slowly adding more capabilities to the program,” says Ken Wilson, the college grants administrator. “We’ve come a lot further down the road than where we were three years ago. We’re pretty well-equipped now.”

Granville County wants help doing drone inspections of its facilities because that’s “easier than paying guys to get up on the roof and do that thing.” The college has also been approached by law enforcement for training.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Wilson says. “We really haven’t introduced it yet to all the farmers in the area. We have a lot of farmers who could benefit from drone technology.”

One of the presenters at Drone Safety Day was Mikayla Berryhill, a field crops extension specialist in Oxford and a 2020 N.C. State grad. Her presence was significant because drone-savvy extension agents can help spread the word to farmers.

“I take a special interest in drones,” she says, “because I think they have a lot of promise in agriculture.” In areas with smaller farms, crop-dusting with planes is difficult. Small fields are surrounded by power lines. Drones can do it more safely.

Drones with sensors, which Berryhill calls a fancy way of saying cameras, can take images of fields to show where crops are in trouble. Maybe they aren’t getting enough water. “Sometimes you can detect problems before we can visually see them,” she says.

Drones can also spray and fertilize fields when they are too muddy for ground vehicles.

She talked about going to the farm show in Raleigh, “And I saw so many drones. It’s crazy how many drones.”

Last fall, I was at a drone air show at Washington-Warren Airport, around five miles from the Beaufort County Community College campus. That is where I met Justin Rose, who is in charge of the college’s industrial training, and he connected me with Ben Poulin, who runs Beaufort’s drone program.

Ben Poulin

The college is a good base for drone training because its four-county service area is the largest in the state, covering nearly 2,200 square miles of land between the Pamlico River and Albemarle Sound and Ocracoke on the Outer Banks. That’s a lot of farms and forests and water, and folks who could benefit from drone services.

“Everybody we’re talking to recognizes the application,” says Poulin. The rangers from Goose Creek State Park came in recently for training. Poulin also had folks from the N.C. Marine Patrol, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the N.C. Forest Service in the building at the same time.

“Everybody’s looking for these classes,” adds Poulin. “Over the last three months, we probably had 60 to 70 people who moved through the Part 107 exam.” Remember, this is not a huge community college. Beaufort had a fall headcount of 4,100, one-tenth of
Wake Tech’s.

Poulin drew an analogy to web design 30 years ago. It required computer skills, while a lot of businesses didn’t have websites. “Now every business is using it and everybody can make their own website pretty easily,” he says. “I think we’re following a similar trajectory when it comes to UAS operations.

“Our job, as we see it, is to help out businesses who are either aware that drones should be something that they are implementing, and help them, or introduce the technology to those who aren’t aware.”

To move things along, Poulin is creating an outdoor drone training course on campus with the help of local businesses. Tideland EMC is donating utility poles, power lines and other equipment. There will be a simulated cell tower and a simulated solar farm. Poulin says he’s not aware of a similar training facility at a public institution.

But there’s more at stake here than imaging corn and inspecting roofs, as worthy as those applications are. There are national security implications. One of the military’s top priorities is more capable and lethal drones and counter-drone technology.

The military will need recruits to fly, program and maintain drones. I thought of this when I saw the drone soccer cage at Vance-Granville. I thought it might be interesting for the youngsters to visit Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point. In April, the drone training squadron got the components of their first MQ-9A Reaper UAV, which they assembled. It is a $31 million piece of equipment.

I mentioned that idea to Wilson, who replied: “If someone called and said would you like to come down, there’d be people on that bus.”

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