Earlier this month, representatives from local and statewide organizations gathered on the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith campus to study a technology that is poised for exponential growth in the next five years.

Twelve enrollees in the university’s first unmanned aircraft course spent a week on campus in a condensed one-week course to learn safety, maintenance, operation and regulations of unmanned aircraft, before taking aircraft to the skies at Kay Rodgers Park in Fort Smith to apply what they’d learned.

The course was taught by Phil Owen, a 24-year veteran of the Army and employee of enRgies, a company based out of Huntsville, Ala. The class laid the foundation for students to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Part 107 knowledge exam. Those passing the exam receive a Pilot in Command (PIC) certificate, which is required to conduct unmanned aircraft system commercial operations.

The course is the beginning of a series of courses UAFS plans to offer in the unmanned aircraft arena as the university seeks to innovatively and proactively educate residents for jobs in the rapidly growing field, according to Dr. Ken Warden, dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology.

“This was the first in a series of many courses that UAFS will offer, and our program will be regionally unique in the way it addresses the emerging need for unmanned aircraft education,” Warden continued. “Most existing programs teach UAS in the context of a specific industry sector, but we have approached the development of this program believing this technology will continue to grow and impact many industry sectors. We are excited about the success of this first course and we look forward to the continued success of this program.”

Unmanned aircraft – also known as drones – are expected to create more than 600 jobs and nearly $500 million in economic impact in Arkansas in the next decade, according to a study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International.

One local company that seeks to take advantage of that growth is Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative (AVECC), who enrolled five of their employees in the course so they could earn licensure to maneuver the aircraft in a commercial capacity.

“We see UAVs as an innovative and cost-effective opportunity to increase safety and reliability,” said Greg Davis, member service manager with AVECC. “Unmanned aircraft can speed recovery of power following severe weather by showing us where lines are damaged and to what extent. We feel that UAVs have great potential for routine inspections and power distribution and infrastructure.”

Floyd Bruneck with the City of Alma Water Department also took the course. He has flown unmanned aircraft as a hobby for more than a year and sought his PIC certification to use the aircraft for dam and water tank inspections, in addition to cinematography.

“We can use drones to get a bird’s-eye view, which we couldn’t get before unless we hired a helicopter,” Bruneck said. “We can take video and see if there’s any repairs or anything we need to do to the dam. On the ground, you can only see so much, and drones give you a much broader view, so you get a better visual of how the dam is.”

Even though he has been flying unmanned aircraft for more than a year, he found the course beneficial.

“The instructor did a great job informing us on rules and regulations from the FAA and preparing us for the exam,” Bruneck said. “I’m glad they had the practical learning aspect of it too, since they had drones for us to fly ourselves. They taught me some techniques I didn’t know.”

Rachel Putman, lead photographer and social media specialist at UAFS, took the FAA knowledge exam the week following the course and passed with an A, becoming the first female to pass the certification exam at the northwest Arkansas testing location.

“UAFS providing this course doesn’t just allow participants like me to learn a new skill for themselves, but it provides exponential cost savings for our employers by allowing them to bring this technology in-house,” Putman said. “sUAS operations are the next generation of aviation, and UAFS is not just keeping up with the technology but at the forefront of it. It’s exciting to know we are setting trends in the state and in the nation.”

UAFS is planning to hold another condensed one-week course in the coming months. For more information about the course, contact Dave Robertson, director of the Center for Business and Professional Development at UAFS, at 479-788-7799 or dave.roberston@uafs.edu.