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New Course Inaugurates Drone Training

The College of Social Sciences and Public Policy is set to launch a new program that will actually have its students excited about their instructors droning on and on.

Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), also referred to by the more military-sounding term “drones,” have become all the rage, attracting everyone from weekend hobbyists to private investigators to Amazon, which recently asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to begin testing the vehicles for delivery purposes. Even Martha Stewart wrote a piece for Time magazine this summer extolling “Why I Love My Drone.” But for the university’s Emergency Management and Homeland Security (EMHS) program, the potential applications of this technology far outstrip its appeal as the latest toy.

In the Spring 2015 semester, EMHS will begin offering the first course in its new program in Application of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. The qualifier “small” refers to UAS of less than 55 pounds, but don’t let the size fool you. The impact on scientific research, policymaking, and the economy promises to be great.

According to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), 100,000 jobs related to the UAS industry will be created between now and 2025. The economic impact in Florida alone is predicted to be $3.8 billion in the same time frame. AUVSI estimates 15,000 new drones in service by state and local agencies in the next 15 years. That means the number of people qualified to use them properly must keep pace, and that’s just what the EMHS program aims to address.

“Our discussions with state and local emergency managers show intense interest in what drones can do for the field of emergency management, particularly emergency response, recovery, and mitigation,” noted David Merrick, deputy director of the EMHS program in the college. “These versatile systems can capture still and video imagery of disaster impacts and provide critical near real-time assessments for a fraction of the cost of manned aircraft.”

The program will be the first such academic track at a major Florida public university, preparing students to use UAS in a variety of public and private applications: monitoring wildfire lines, identifying hot spots in burning buildings, monitoring and forecasting agricultural conditions, and locating and communicating with people stranded in disaster situations, to name just a few.

EMHS is well-placed to offer the program, thanks to its internal expertise and associations with other departments and programs within the college.

The team has extensive capabilities with UAS technology, not just in practical hands-on use but in terms of regulations, requirements, and the realities of employing data in various fields. EMHS has used UAS in two disaster risk-reduction projects in Haiti and is currently working with the Florida Division of Emergency Management to explore integrating the technology more fully in public safety and disaster decision making. Three faculty members set for the program, David Merrick, Jarrett Broder, and Robert McDaniel, have been certified as operators by the manufacturers of specific aircraft.

Some material pertaining to UAS is unique and requires the development of new courses; other instruction will initially draw from the Departments of Geography and Urban and Regional Planning, in keeping with the interdisciplinary approach to education fostered by the college.

The biggest hurdle to clear is the necessarily stringent rules on where to fly UAS. EMHS strictly complies with all current Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. A team from the program was invited to attend a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conference in Atlanta in October to begin talks with the FAA on revised guidelines as they apply to emergency management.

To date, the restrictions on commercial use of UAS have been “severe,” Merrick said, and higher education is still categorized as commercial. New FAA rules could open university use to the broader research guidelines. In the meantime, the team is exploring the use of large local buildings in which to operate the craft indoors and relatively unrestricted. In any case, the introductory course to be offered in spring will not require any flying, though opportunities will exist.

“There’s much in the way of understanding the technology and its applications, not to mention the policy issues involved with the use of UAS, that students need to learn before they get their craft up in the air,” Merrick said. “By the end of this program, these students will have unique experience in every aspect of UAS deployment, remote sensing applications, and putting UAS imagery to work in a wide range of specializations. And know how to fly them!”

The program will be offered as a 15-credit-hour graduate certificate and 12 hours for the undergraduate certificate. The first course, Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems will be offered in the spring. Other core courses in advanced applications, public safety, and UAS for planning will be rolled out over the course of the following three semesters.

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