According to Bill Hutto, director of Auburn's airport and aviation center, a UAS flight school is a “natural fit” for the university, which has been conducting aviation education and training for 80-plus years, he tells Unmanned Aerial Online. Auburn submitted its petition for exemption in December and then received its authorization this April.
The public university, which touts itself as “one of the largest universities in the South,” enrolls over 25,000 students, according to its website. Hutto notes that although Auburn offers several degrees related to aviation/aerospace, it does not have a degree for UAS, and the students are excited to get their feet wet in the burgeoning industry.
However, the new flight school is expanding beyond the reach of just the students and staff. Instead, Hutto explains, it will also be offered to the public, including to government and other public agencies. The idea, he says, is to allow anyone to “get experience” in using the devices.
According to Hutto, this experience will be best acquired through the operation of a DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, the aircraft for which Auburn received its exemption. Citing the UAS’ ease of use, he believes it is a good fit for beginners.
The flight school team currently has four of these devices in its fleet and will focus on the “basic operations of UAS,” explains Hutto.
But, in the future, this fleet may branch out to other types of unmanned aircraft, he says.
All entities that hold these Section 333 exemptions may operate only the specific aircraft OK’d by the FAA in that exemption. If an entity wants to use a different model, it must receive a separate or amended exemption.
Hutto says plans are in the works to apply for these separate exemptions, including those that would bring the operation of fixed-wing UAS to the flight school. This, in turn, would introduce a whole other slew of educational opportunities, such as teaching the applications of precision agriculture, he explains.
As for the restrictions placed by the exemption – such as the altitude limits and keeping within the visual line of sight of the operator – Hutto does not believe they are detrimental to the flight school’s current curriculum plan. The blanket Certificate of Waiver or Authorization will allow Auburn to offer training in airspace throughout the state, as long as flights are under 200 feet in altitude. For the purpose of basic UAS education, flights need not be any higher than that, he says.
The teachers, he notes, are “master UAS trainers out of the military,” and he anticipates that they will be placed at a ratio of one teacher for every seven students. If there are, for example, 21 students in a course, there would be three instructors in order to “keep people engaged,” Hutto explains.
As part of the program, Auburn will issue a written exam and a flight-proficiency test, as well as a three-day educational course. If the participants do not already have a private pilot license or have not attended FAA ground school, they will go through an additional day of prerequisite courses, which include education on “interspace – so they understand where to fly and not to fly” as well as on “basic meteorology,” according to Hutto.
Before the program rolls out, he adds, Auburn is planning to seek input from the FAA in order to perfect the curriculum.
Teaming up with the FAA, he notes, could also bring forth a partnership wherein the flight school’s written exam would be a “model” for those that the FAA administers in the future.
The state of Alabama is no stranger to actively pursuing advancements in the UAS industry: Last summer, Gov. Robert Bentley announced the Alabama Drone Task Force, which was created to further the use of UAS in the state.
In a release from Auburn University, Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey called the UAS flight school “a major win for the state.” Increasing Alabama’s involvement in UAS, she said, is “critical to [the state’s] success in future opportunities.”
And, according to Hutto, the school has already received “many, many inquiries” from those eager to sign up for this new opportunity, which he expects will be inaugurated this June.