Hinds gets drone program off ground

The Clarion-Ledger

RAYMOND, Miss. — When news hit earlier this month that an American drone had killed at least 10 al-Qaida militants, instructors some 8,000 miles away at Hinds Community College were working on Mississippi’s first program to train drone pilots.

Currently the market on unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, also known as drones, is almost completely military. In February, President Barack Obama signed a bill giving the Federal Aviation Administration three years to “integrate” UAVs into the national air space along with piloted aircraft.

Seeing that opening, HCC’s leaders thought it was time to start training the people who will pilot those crafts.

“In the next two to five years this industry will explode,” said instructor/ consultant Dennis Lott. “There are so many opportunities that will be available, there will be more positions than pilots and technicians to fill them.”

Hinds already has a traditional aviation course that trains pilots. The UAV program will allow students to take four courses that will train them to fly the unmanned aircraft.

The people who go into those military positions tend to have hand-eye coordination and technical knowledge that comes from personal experience with radio-controlled aircraft or video games.

The idea for the class at Hinds was born a few years ago when the college’s aviation chairman, Randy Pearcy, was discussing an ROTC program with New York surgeon Dr. Butch Rosser.

Rosser is a big fan of video game education for children, Pearcy said, because he got his own hand-eye coordination, particularly in surgeries performed while looking at a monitor, from playing video games.

The two collaborated on some efforts to expose kids to the fields of aviation and medicine in ways they could understand.

Students of all ages already are inquiring into the program, Pearcy said.

“We’ve had people just out of high school, but also a lot of nontraditional type students and people who have always had an interest in remote control aircraft,” he said. “Right now we probably have more nontraditional students than freshmen right out of high school.”

Sean Meacham, 19, is an aviation student at HCC, as well as a crew chief for the Air Guard. Looking toward a career in the Air Force, he is taking the traditional pilot classes at HCC as well as the UAV classes this coming semester. He said he was interested in radio-controlled planes before he came to college, and still works with the five he has at home.

“I’m looking at this to be a backup,” he said. “So if something ever happens and I can no longer fly commercially or for the military, I have the knowledge I need to fly UAVs for a contractor. There’s no telling what all will be available in the future.”

While building the curriculum, Pearcy said he talked to employers at Aurora Flight Sciences and Stark Aerospace in Starkville.

Hinds’ program allows students to go at the industry from several angles. They can do as Meacham is and take both traditional and UAV pilot training or focus solely on the UAV work.

The program also will teach them to repair and upgrade the aircraft.

The program has several kinds of simulators, including one that simulates a remote control airplane.

“We get their skills built up here, then we’ll take them out and let them fly some of the smaller radio-controlled aircraft inside the hangar,” Pearcy said. “We’ll probably damage a lot of aircraft, but we’ll learn to repair them, and we’ll work our way up to larger and larger aircraft.”

At this point, it’s not really clear what kind of certifications UAV pilots will need, since there really isn’t a standardized certification now.

“We don’t really know what the domestic market will look like. The FAA is working that out,” Lott said. “There may be and probably will be initially some actual pilot certifications that are required for UAV operators.”

That’s one thing that gives HCC an advantage, he said.

“We’re already in that market,” he said. “We’re training pilots now. After two years here, we’ll have a well-rounded individual that can fly, or if they’re not interested in flying, they’ll know the technical side of it. They’ll know the basics of maintenance and repair, and we’ll also provide them with the pilot training necessary for whatever level the FAA decides they want them to have.”

And once they’ve finished at Hinds, students can use what they’ve learned to go straight into the work force or use it to go into either Delta State’s commercial aviation department or engineering studies at Mississippi State if they want to keep their studies in state.

Hinds has spent $16 million, primarily in FAA grants, over the last few years on its aviation infrastructure because there’s a bigger plan, said J.B. Williams Airport Director Michelle Jackson. The airport also is surrounded by 640 acres for expansion or development by aviation industry partners.

“We’d like to attract aviation industries, and we would hope UAV might be the one type of anchor tenant that would come in,” she said.

The state has hopes of building on the UAV industry made up of industries such as Northrop Grumman’s Unmanned Systems Center in Moss Point, which builds the Global Hawk and Fire Scout.

They are designed to provide reconnaissance, situational awareness, and precision targeting support for ground, air and sea forces.

Gov. Phil Bryant recently traveled to the Farnborough International Air Show in England, said spokesman Mick Bullock.

“Mississippi has long been a leader in aerospace technology and skilled manufacturing, including 26 aerospace-related businesses in the state,” he said. “Gov. Bryant looks forward to pursuing opportunities for our state that will emerge as the result of such a significant manufacturing investment in the region.”

In addition, Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory is nationally known for its work with UAVs, and held a seminar earlier this year featuring speakers such as Air Force Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“We have a lot of activity in this lab in UAV and UAS,” said Raspet Director Ratneshwar Jha.

Raspet leads the area’s research centers for the industry and is flanked by Aurora and Stark, which are also involved in assembly and manufacture of UAV models.