PITTSBURG – Quadcopter drones, more formally known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), have become an increasingly common sight in recent years, sometimes taking up whole sections of electronics or department stores.
But while they may look easy to use, there is more to operating these remote-controlled flying machines than meets the eye. Would-be instructors in how to fly drones came from as far as Gardner and Liberal to learn this firsthand at a recent day-long workshop at Pittsburg State University that aimed to teach instructors how to teach their own students to operate UAS.
“We went over to the rec center this morning and flew some little drones, kind of got the cheap ones out, and they didn’t do so well,” said Lindsey Baker, a technology and engineering education student at PSU who also works as a lab assistant at the school. “It’s a little more complicated than it looks, that’s for sure,” she said.
After some practice, though, the amateur remote-control pilots were ready to move on to bigger and better drones.
“Since they’ve kind of passed their skills test this morning, they have more talent in the flying field and now they get to do the cool stuff,” said Byron McKay, technology and engineering education program coordinator at PSU, who was leading the March 8 workshop. “Ours is kind of the beginning piece, we’re going to teach them the basics and move along from there.”
Drone workshop attendees also learned about the rules about who can fly drones, and where they’re allowed.
“Drones are one thing that if you’re going to fly them, you need to know what the rules are,” McKay said. “Some people are required to have licenses, some people aren’t, but even the people that don’t have licenses still have to follow the rules.”
While some hobbyists may be able get away with unlicensed flying of drones, the technology remains in somewhat of a legal gray area. Doing something as simple as uploading a video taken using a drone to a monetized Youtube channel could count as commercial use, technically requiring a license under Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations. Many schools, meanwhile, want anyone who teaches others to fly drones to have a license. Other uses are more clearly commercial.
“They talked about FAA regulations that apply to drones, and the use of drones, and the importance of getting your license,” said Terry Thoelke, who teaches broadcast journalism and photography at Gardner Edgerton High School and attended the Friday class at PSU, which was sponsored by the Kansas Center for Career and Technical Education.
Besides shooting video, people are also finding uses for drones in industries that are widespread in Kansas, such as agriculture.
“You can check for, you know, damage from pests, if you need to put pesticides somewhere else,” said Derek Faust, an instructor in agricultural sciences at Butler Community College in El Dorado, who also attended the drone class. “If you have a nutrient deficiency you can look at that, other applications are for actually spraying autonomously, but most of what I’m looking at is kind of data collection stuff is what I’m interested in, so using drones for surveying fields, surveying livestock.”
As was the case with other attendees of the recent PSU drone workshop, some of the rules about where drones are allowed to fly were news to Faust.
“There’s an oil refinery right next to our campus where I work and apparently for some kinds of infrastructure I’ll have to go in and actually check and make sure that it’s OK for me to be flying drones near there, so that’s something I didn’t really think too much about,” he said.
Like Faust, two agricultural instructors at Seward County Community College, Josh Morris and Nick Noterman, who drove six hours from Liberal, Kansas and stayed overnight in Pittsburg before the PSU drone workshop, aimed to learn how to use drones for agricultural purposes and in turn teach their students to fly them.
“Incorporating them for scouting plants and looking for problem areas of the field is a big thing,” said Morris. “Looking at livestock from an aerial perspective and pens and feed yards and that kind of stuff, they could have a benefit. On my side I’m kind of a little more interested in the crop side, you know, using maybe thermal imaging to look at areas of the field that aren’t doing so good and then go figure out why, and you don’t have to get out and walk the entire field to find it.”
Noterman similarly said that drones could be “pretty much a time saver to be efficient, so you don’t have to drive everywhere” across a large stretch of agricultural land to check up on crops and livestock.
For several of the student drone instructors, the aspect they had known least about before the class at PSU was the regulatory framework for flying drones.
“Some airspace is regulated and you have to know before you fly where those regulations are, and that’s a lot of what I learned today,” said Thoelke. “I didn’t think about all the restrictions and requirements for running a drone, so I think that was really important to hear today.”
But the practice in flying drones, Thoelke said, was also worthwhile. “That’s the fun part,” she said.