PWSC's second run of the Small Unmanned Aerial Systems class, commonly known as drones, could not have had a better start. This semester the class was moved to afternoons to enable classroom flight outdoors during daylight hours. Now offered twice a week for 3 hours a day through October, the accelerated class has already taken advantage of the outstanding weather this week. As the instructor, Don Bickley, explains, "During the first session, we unbox our Alias drones and begin to learn about the terminology and maneuvers for basic flight. These drones are small, finicky, and will constantly fight you to stay in one place. They are great little machines, but they force you to be able to control the aircraft at all times through continuous micro-movements. It is that discipline and control that we try to carry over to the larger drones as the course progresses."
The course is designed to break people of their habit of staring at the display screen as they fly by building up their situational awareness of what is going on around the aircraft. The early afternoon hours tend to be calm behind the college along the park strip. This gives the students an open area to train. The park isn't completely vacant, however, and students get a crash course in having to serve as both Pilot in Command and Visual Observer due to all of the activities that can be going on in this area. "We always want to give people who are out and about enjoying the park strip priority," Don explains. Students are taught how to hover in place away from people and pets, and to have a minimal presence in the area. "There is always some erratic flight behavior every semester, but that is why they fly to learn. I really want to keep them away from people's houses and yards."
One of the more eye-opening exercises for students is to have them watch their drone as it ascends into the sky and, once told to stop, guess how far off the ground the drone is. "Many students will say 60, maybe 100 feet, but then we show them the display and they are right at the 400 foot legal maximum above surface. It really shows how terrible human depth perception is, shows how easy it is to lose track of where the drone actually is versus where we think it should be, and allows us to start looking at ways in which we can structure our mission and analyze the environment to avoid pilot disorientation."
Thanks to a University of Alaska Statewide Workforce Program grant, students this semester will be able to move on from a mid-size, consumer drone, to a large-scale, weather resistant, industrial drone with multiple payloads. These payloads include a dedicated cinema camera that requires a separate operator, and a hybrid optical-thermal sensor payload for real-time temperature analysis (the optical portion overlays edges and lines so that it's possible to still read signs and other visual queues that then overlay the thermal image).