MOUNT GAY, W.Va. - Drones are set to become one of the most popular Christmas gifts this season, and anyone you can learn all about them thanks to a new program at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
Many may be surprised at how extensive the commercial applications of drone technology have become in the marketplace and the world of work. From local surveying jobs to making marketing videos for businesses across the country, drones are having an even bigger impact in the civilian world than they did in the military.
And it's not just "kid stuff," even though youngsters in your family may be bugging you to put one under the tree for them this holiday season.
"This is some of the stuff we just got in today," said educator Rick Thompson at the third floor classroom of the college's Mount Gay campus. Surrounded by large monitors, rows of 3-D printers and a large number of drones packed in containers, the setting looks more like the set of some Hollywood science fiction based television show than a college classroom. And well it should. As Thompson admits, the old cliche about yesterday's science fiction being today's world is never more true than now. And he points out that thanks to classes at the college taking advantage of such tech, the school is helping get people prepared for the high tech workplace of tomorrow.
"I am the guy with the toys," said Thompson, of the high tech items filling the room. Thompson is a computer technology professor at the school, where he has been employed "around 18 years."
Thompson noted that for well over a decade, SWVCTC has utilized community partnerships to build successful curriculum - such as the Allied Health Program and the Mining Technology Program - and said that the public can expect that tradition to continue with the technology classes and new tech like drones.
"We currently offer the 107 class, where you can get your commercial certification from the FAA to pilot a drone for commercial purposes. Currently the only other place in the state where you can get your license is in Bridgeport," he said.
"We also have a 3-D printing class," Thompson said on Nov. 28, noting that as technology changes the workplaces of today adapt to it. Thompson was joined by fellow educator Matt Payne, an associate professor of IT and Lead Faculty and student Randall Johnson, as other students and staffers wander in and out of the large room.
"We do have a lot of neat stuff in here," Thompson said as he picked up a small white drone. "This one started out as a toy," he explained discussing how it was upgraded to become a racing drone. "That is something I would like to see here -- a racing drone league."
Payne, who has been at SWVCTC for 15 years, said that four years ago the marketplace exploded as drone technology became affordable to the common man.
"For many years, things such as remote controlled helicopters were popular," Payne explained. Then Quad Helicopters became available. Drones were used extensivey by the U.S. Military, and soon large companies such as Amazon began looking into using Drones for things like package delivery. Today the quad type drones are the most common, but there are also hexacopters and fixed wing Drones available.
"They got scaled down for commercial use," Payne explained, discussing how local fields like mining and surveying became affected by drone technology, which makes it possible to do some jobs faster, cheaper and safer. "A surveying job that would take three men about ten days to complete can be done with a drone in one day," Payne said.
Thompson noted that jobs such as measuring coal piles at a mine can be accomplished easier with drones than it could be done the old way-- by hand.
"You can get those measurements in minutes with a drone where it used to take hours," Payne said. "That can save you both time and money. A business can save thousands on hourly expenses thanks to drone technology."
Payne said that earlier this year, in March, part of Route 35 was surveyed by drone. "We measured ten miles in one afternoon," Payne said. "It would have taken a survey crew weeks to do that."
Of course in order to take advantage of the technology and the savings requires skills, which is where SWVCTC comes in.
"We began working on this project four years ago," Thompson said.
Payne said the drone class turned out to be very popular. The school is looking into hiring another instructor due to the growth in interest of such technology. Payne said most IT classes have between 25 and 29 students.
"We are in the 68 student range now, and we have people coming out of the woodwork wanting to sign up," Payne said.
"It is a field that is growing -- and it is growing around here," Thompson said.
Payne said that a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission made the wealth of technology in the classroom available to SWVTC's students. The college partnered with another school in Maysville, Kentucky, and got a $1.2 million grant.
"Maysville is going to integrate their program with their Electicrical Lineman's Program they have," Payne said, explaining that currently Southern is integrating the technology to the assist needs of regional businesses. The college got over $700,000 for their programs.
"Amazon got headlines when they began using drones to deliver packages," Thompson said. "But there are so many more commercial applications that drones can affect than just that."
Thompson and Payne hope that like other SWVCTC programs the drone program will be able to partner with local companies - which could hire graduates of the technology courses. "We also want to integrate it into our business and entrepreneurship courses," Payne said. "Right now, the surveying field is using drone technology hot and heavy."
In addition to mining, surveying, medicine and marketing other areas of the workplace that drones will affect include such things as technical inspection of cell-phone towers.
Thompson showed the goggle like devices used to pilot the devices.
"We don't have night vision on one yet," Payne said. "But we are working on getting a thermal camera for one. What you see on this table is about $22,000 worth of equipment."
Thompson said the drones themselves are amazing pieces of equipment that have a much longer service life than you might expect.
"Their service life is measured in hours," Thompson said adding that unless the drones are crashed the most you have to worry about is the battery. "The motor design also has to deal with cycles of the battery. The batteries are the parts that wear out the most."
Batteries for the drones the college uses cost from $150 on up. "When the temperature approaches freezing outside, you have to pre-heat the batteries," he added, noting that the motors are wear resistant, but the bearings do require lubrication.