Rocky Mountain College student Nathan McKenty is excited to get in on the ground floor of the newest aviation trend: unmanned aerial vehicles. “It’s a wide open frontier of possibilities,” McKenty, 35, said Friday at RMC’s Aviation Hall.
Last week, Rocky officials approved a new minor degree program in unmanned aerial systems, the first of its kind nationwide, they say. The two-semester program includes courses and lab work on design and operations, the evolving laws and regulations, and earth science.
The Rocky aviation program began offering an introductory class last summer.
On Friday and Saturday, officials with the aviation program held demonstrations of the equipment and a round-table discussion with students. They were joined by Doug Forest of Kalispell-based Innova Flight Training and Unmanned Systems Inc., who led training courses.
The six members of this Rocky class are McKenty, Kalen Park, 36; Joseph Mutcher, 33; Jerid McCabe, 20; Colton Wood, 21; and Jake Ramirez, 18.
They remind professor Scott Wilson of a different group of pilots, famous for having “The Right Stuff.”
“These guys are sitting there like the seven Mercury astronauts. … They’re the inaugural class,” Wilson said.
Unmanned aerial systems are a multibillion-dollar business, and Rocky officials say their graduates could make six figures in the industry shortly out of college. The new program is a good tool to attract students to Rocky, college officials said.
Just don’t call them drones, the more commonly used term. A drone is a type of unmanned aerial system used by the military, but the students say the applications are much broader.
“Drone is more of a negative term that implies it has one job to do,” student McCabe said.
Ranchers could use them to get a quick view of their livestock, oil companies can monitor their pipelines and photographers can use them for panoramic still shots and video. Amazon.com is exploring using drones for package delivery.
While the unmanned flight business is growing, it’s not without controversy. Critics decry rising drone strikes by the military. Others worry the unmanned vehicles could invade privacy.
Last summer, a tourist at Yellowstone National Park made international headlines when he crashed a UAS into a hot spring while trying to take aerial photos. He was fined $3,000.
The Federal Aviation Administration is working on regulations to govern the commercial use of the devices, such as limiting altitude and keeping them away from airports.
Rocky students said they welcome the oversight, and they’ll have a leg up because of their training.
“When the FAA does have regulations, we’ll be the first ones on top of the game and ready to go,” Mutcher said.
On Saturday, the students sat in Billings and flew the unmanned vehicles in a Kalispell airfield, connected through the Internet. They used proprietary technology called Longshot to practice their skills.
“I couldn’t really believe that we were flying a UAS, 200 miles away, through the Internet,” Ramirez said of his first time behind the control.