Special Report: The Buzz Over Drones - Part 2

Updated: 05/21/2014 11:28 PM
Created: 05/21/2014 11:10 PM
By: Darren Danielson

We have seen some spectacular video taken by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. But drones do more than take pretty pictures.

For raw footage of the Duluth Habor, click here.

They are also expected to create thousands of new jobs in coming years. And inside a Northland college, students are hoping to launch careers in this growing industry. 

It's a bit like Christmas morning in the classroom. Laughter and excitement are in the air as Lake Superior College students begin ripping open the packages they have been anxiously waiting for.   

Inside is their new drone - or unmanned aerial vehicle. But this is more than a stocking stuffer.  They are aviation students. They are unwrapping their future.  Nine students formed their own hobby club and got a grant to buy their own drone.  

Josh Froelke is the club president and he tells us UAVs are the future of aviation.

"Down the line I'd really like to be a pilot," he says. "A UAV pilot that operates and controls and runs missions for maybe a company that operates these."

They will certainly have fun flying it, but these guys are looking way beyond that.

George Olson is vice president of the club. He is launching into drones for a different reason.

"I'll be going into mechanical engineering, and UAVs definitely have a large following in the mechanical engineering world right now."  

Olson discovered that the world of UAVs actually brings together two of his primary career interests.   

"I'm going into mechanical engineering because I love building things, I've also always loved aviation."  

Olson says unmanned aerial vehicles are a combination of the best of both worlds.

"You have computer programming, to the mechanical aspects of the actual plane, to the actual aviation part of it, so it's all of the worlds combined. It's a really neat field!"

To get this project off the ground, the students have had a little help. Lt. Col. Mike Nelson teaches aviation at the college and is the UAV club's faculty advisor.

"Many of the skills used in flying a small radio controlled aircraft are very similar to UAS, unmanned aircraft systems," Nelson explains.

Nelson is adjunct faculty at Lake Superior College and two new courses on unmanned aerial systems have just been added to the 2014 curriculum.  

"The growth of the industry is estimated to be an $80 billion industry by the year 2020," adding, in his opinion, that number is grossly underestimated.

Drone testing alone could lead to a 1,000 new jobs in Minnesota according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The group also says nearly $150 million will be pumped into the Minnesota economy from the growing industry over the next two years.  

These students want to be part of that action.

Froelke rattles off just a few potential uses for UAVs: "Power line patrol, oil line patrol, looking for wildlife in conducting research, there are a lot of civilian applications for them. Searching for a lost hunter in the woods, or maybe a river that's flooding, or say there's a fire somewhere that really allows you to put the machine in there and keep the person safe, that's a lot more efficient."

Once necessary regulations are in place, the FAA estimates within five years over 7,000 commercial drones will be in use.   

Froelke says, "Everything from atmospheric studies that they normally have to do with big planes that cost lots and lots of money and lots of people on board, they could do with UAVs for far, far less, to just border patrol."  

All these students have been thinking ahead. Olson has done a lot of checking and says there are already pilot jobs out there.  

"This is a chance for us to get on the cutting edge in that job growth. I think it's the future of aviation."

That very well may be, but the future is currently in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Concerns about public safety and privacy are, for now, keeping the drone industry from really taking off. The FAA isn't expected to release firm guidelines for private or commercial drone use for at least another year.  

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