LINCOLN CITY — Career Tech Charter High School’s Coastal Drone Academy pilots spent three days in the field this summer remotely flying while taking more than 25,000 photographs in a mission commissioned by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to map sea grasses and shellfish of Netarts Bay.
“We can fly huge areas and produce really accurate data,” said Chuck Getter, drone professor at Career Tech.
In performing missions, pilots program their drones to fly in an up-and-back pattern in a block area while taking photos. “In aviation terms, you call it a sortie,” Getter said. “Your block is the area you’re going to take the pictures in, and that’s limited by the length of the batteries in the drones. These drones can fly for about an hour, so they can fly about 25 miles.”
A block, or sortie, equals about a quarter square mile, Getter said. In the Netarts mission, they tried to map two or three blocks a day. Information they gathered is survey grade. “They are a crew, and they get paid as a natural resource crew doing drone work,” he said. “They get an incentive pay for the day.” They also get high school and college credits.
Getter started talking about a drone program with Career Tech’s charter owner, Community Services Consortium, in 2015. Gaining support from them, as well as from Lincoln County School District, Federal Aviation Administration, American Model Aeronautics, State of Oregon ODFW and other collaborators and clients, Coastal Drone Academy gained a grant from Oregon Department of Education to get going, including the purchase of drones. September 2018 commences the academy’s second full year of flying.
The academy offers three courses, AV 101, 102 and 103. From the first week of the first class, students fly trainer drones.
In AV101, when it rains, students fly their drones inside the Oregon National Guard Building. “They do racing, they have a lot of fun,” Getter said. The first year is spent learning to be a pilot — aerodynamics, the rules of flying, visiting an airport and a flight museum, and learning how to repair their drones.
“Right now what we’re trying to do is marine studies. To do that using a drone, you have to enter U.S. air space,” he said, and that requires a FAA drone pilot, or 107 license, which all students are strongly encouraged to obtain.
The 107 test has 125 concepts, Getter said. “We actually spend a year inside the 107 licensing booklets trying to understand the concepts that FAA gives us, instead of just memorizing them.”
AV 102, the operations course, focuses on doing useful work for the academy’s collaborators. AV 103 focuses on performing missions.
“Students also learn how to work as a team, how to produce a product of data for a client or collaborator, or maybe they look back and reflect on their high school experience with some more satisfaction in themselves and their accomplishments,” Getter said.
Coastal Drone Academy is being watched by two sets of evaluators — the Oregon Department of Education visits them every three months to talk to the students and instructors and to see what they can do, and the academy has also invited Oregon State University to evaluate its program.
A focus is to follow students once they graduate and to ask them what things worked and didn’t and what they would add. “We’re also trying to ask, ‘What did you become when you grew up, did it help you?’” Getter said.
Career Tech 2018 graduate student Jason Miranda will work next school year as a tutor in the drone program. He will also be attending community college and has been accepted for a marine studies cruise scholarship to Oregon State University, Getter said. “They have an offshore research program, and he’ll be off chasing whales with drones sometime in September.”
Getter has more than 30 years experience as a drone and airplane pilot. He worked on a team developing a concept for making maps of shorelines, subsequently mapping the entire United States shoreline then being invited by countries to map their shorelines, resulting in his team mapping over 25,000 miles.
Nationwide, there’s a shortage of drone pilots, he said, adding that collaborators and clients are great places for academy graduates to gain internships, employment and other opportunities.