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UMA unveils Maine’s first drone piloting course

AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s a growing buzz in the air at the University of Maine at Augusta.

Visitors to campus may notice small unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, commonly referred to as drones, whizzing about overhead in coming semesters as the university works to build a training center and specialize in training new pilots.

An increasing number of businesses and industries are using drones to their advantage. Construction companies and engineers use them to survey land for future projects. Photographers use them to get new angles and film commercials. Search and rescue teams use them to comb forests for missing people. As the number of uses grows, so will demand for drone pilots.

“This puts Maine on the forefront of what’s going on in the [unmanned aircraft systems] industry,” said Dan Leclair, a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol who is helping to get the university program off the ground. He’s been involved in UAV training at the national level for three years.

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The program, led by project director Tom Abbott, launched about two weeks ago. Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Jolda, who spent his career training Air Force jet pilots and flying a C-130 Hercules, also has joined the effort as coordinator for the new UAV program.

He believes training these pilots could become one of UMA’s specialties. The campus already offers an aviation program, which trains students to become FAA-certified commercial pilots.

Students will start learning on a tiny, durable 5-inch quadcopter, a UAV propelled by four rotors. For their first flights, students will stick to the classroom in Katz Library, flying the small drone inside, getting a feel for the remote controls by hovering the drone, moving it from point to point in a square marked by tape on the classroom floor.

Once they’ve gotten a “feel for the sticks,” as Leclair put it, the class moves outside and students scale up to the larger quadcopters, which can carry mounted cameras.

On Oct. 6, Jolda and Leclair launched a pair of quadcopters outside the library to demonstrate what they could do. The drones hovered over the campus’ Central Green, dancing up and down in the air and circling around one another. Students stopped to look up and watch them.

“That’s the sort of interest we’re looking for,” Abbott said.

Leclair zoomed his drone up to 200 feet to help demonstrate how high it could go, and show the lofty view of campus on a video screen attached to his remote control. FAA regulations allow drone pilots to fly the skies up to 400 feet — going any higher requires special approval.

Leclair also demonstrated another drone, a smaller, more powerful homemade unit, that he built for speed and racing. It whirred about over the campus, swooping over the Central Green to demonstrate how quickly it could stop and change direction.

Drone racing has grown in popularity in recent years, and events are spreading through empty parking garages and abandoned factories across the country. The Drone Racing League serves as the umbrella organization for a growing number of these pilots. The fledgling sport was televised on ESPN for the first time earlier this year.

After mastering the quadcopters, skilled pilots in the class may be allowed to try the instructors’ fixed-wing drones, which are harder to operate and less durable, Leclair said. These are model planes, usually made of styrofoam, designed to allow the operator to perform loops and other tricks.

As winter sets in, students will be able to operate the larger drones from indoors, using remote controls and the drone-mounted cameras rather than standing out in the cold. A second pilot will be posted in the line of sight of the drone to take over if it malfunctions or the student starts to lose control. Most UAVs automatically return to an established point if they lose contact with the pilot or run low on battery power.

The classroom includes a computer simulator, allowing students to fly a variety of drones using the same remote controls, but without launching an actual aircraft.

The seven-week course will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting Oct. 27. It’s open to anyone, not just university students. The course fee is $400. The university says anyone interested in registering should call 1-877-UMA-1234 or visit the school’s website.

Participants won’t earn any credits, but the course will prepare them for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Remote Pilot Certification exam, which is required of anyone who wants to pilot a drone for work or commercial purposes, and it will give students a chance to operate different styles of drones.

Hobbyists don’t require certification, but do have to follow certain FAA regulations.

At the end of August, the FAA released a new set of rules for nonrecreational drone use. These new regulations sought to clear up confusion surrounding where and how pilots were allowed to use UAVs.

“This course has been built around these regulations, and quickly,” Leclair said. Students will learn about the rules of piloting drones, and discuss ethical concerns of how they should be used.

The program is funded through a $250,000 University of Maine System Research Investment Fund seed grant, which aims to help establish programs and courses that advance Maine’s economy and industries.

Ultimately, UMA wants to establish a “drone training base” on campus, including a classroom space and storage for the drones, and a 90-foot runway where fixed-wing UAVs can safely take off and land.

“This could serve as a start for a training program for an entire industry in Maine,” Abbot said.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.


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