(TNS) -- WORCESTER - Sometimes, inspiration takes off when you least expect it.
Kathleen Manning, dean of the Center for Workforce Development and Continuing Education at Quinsigamond Community College, was watching the ABC television show "Shark Tank" last February, in which budding entrepreneur and Babson College MBA graduate Abby Speicher pitched to investors her national drone-training company, DARTdrones.
"Right away I could see the workforce implications," Ms. Manning said.
She envisioned a need for trained drone pilots, programmers, mechanics, aerial photographers and other specialists around the burgeoning field of what the Federal Aviation Administration calls unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS.
Ms. Manning contacted DARTdrones and partnered with the company to develop a drone certificate program, which she said was the first among Massachusetts community colleges.
The course, which will be offered in two full-day weekend sessions, Sept. 23 - Sept. 24 or Oct. 14 - Oct. 15, prepares students to take the exam for remote pilot certification under FAA regulations known as Part 107. It provides in-person flight training and covers the basics of getting started with drones, safety guidelines, models and types of drones and industry trends. Additional classes will include aerial photography, test-preparation classes and learning how to start a drone business. Tuition is $1,250.
"This is not geared toward hobbyists," Ms. Manning said. "This is a workforce class for people to use in the workforce."
The distinction between recreational or hobby users of drones and nonrecreational or commercial users became significant a year ago when the FAA issued regulations outlining requirements for both types of UAS uses. The agency considers any professional use, whether by a for-profit company, an academic or nonprofit institution, or a public safety search-and-rescue mission to be commercial use.
Under commercial use, outlined in Part 107, operators must take an exam to be certified as remote pilots and have to follow rules including keeping drones below 400 feet, not flying over people, flying only in daytime, flying only where the operator can see the drone and, of course, staying away from other aircraft and airports. Certain exceptions are allowed by waivers.
Simon Ngotho, who runs Sky-view Consultants in Worcester, a training program for drone pilots, was introduced to commercial applications for drones at a conference in Las Vegas when he was in the real estate business. Mr. Ngotho is an instructor in QCC's upcoming class and also has a background as an engineer and a licensed practical nurse.
Aerial photography taken with drones for real estate is one of the most popular uses of the technology, according to Mr. Ngotho. He said about half his students are in real estate and want to be able to show a property's surroundings better.
"With a drone, you get exposed to other views," he said.
Others flocking to drone technology include photographers and filmmakers, people in utilities and construction industries, farmers, surveyors, news media, law enforcement and public safety personnel.
But with high-end drones costing thousands of dollars, Mr. Ngotho said, students need to know how to fly safely and properly.
Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton also began offering drone pilot preparation classes in its night school last semester.
"There's a lot of interest," said Christopher Faucher, associate vocational director and director of cooperative and adult education at Bay Path. "I think what it is, is an addition to a lot of career areas. We do see this as an added tool."
The 32 ½ hour class at Bay Path runs for 13 weeks on Tuesday nights. Mr. Faucher said the spring class focused only on preparing for the remote pilot exam, although the fall course may include four hours of flight training on a Saturday. The cost for the Bay Path class, which is taught by the AeroVenture Institute, is $499.
The demand for skilled drone pilots is growing rapidly. A study commissioned in 2013 by the FAA forecast that the drone industry was expected to generate $2.3 billion in spending in 2016, growing to $5.1 billion in 2025. Employment was expected to be 22,800 in 2016 and 50,529 in 2025. Over the 10-year period 2015-2025, drones were expected to generate 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in direct and indirect economic activity.
An FAA spokesman reported in an email that as of Aug. 18, more than 79,000 drones were registered for nonhobby use, primarily commercial. The agency had issued more than 59,000 remote pilot certificates, which are required to operate a drone commercially.
The number of remote pilots is forecast to increase to 281,300 in 2021, an average annual growth rate from 2016 of 69.1 percent, according to an FAA fact sheet.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, speaking at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Xponential conference in Dallas in May, described the pace of development: "In the traditional aircraft industry, new jetliners are introduced maybe once every 10 or 15 years. In the world of unmanned aircraft, 10 or 15 new products might be introduced every year."
But that rapid growth means "we have to grapple with new and complex questions that affect a broad spectrum of the many stakeholders we have in this industry," Mr. Huerta said.
"We absolutely see great value in using drones to inspect our networks in addition to the foot and helicopter patrols we currently do to keep them running safely and reliably," Terron Hill, director of network strategy for National Grid's New England transmission system, said in an email. "Drones can be particularly useful in areas that are difficult to access, or for damage inspections in bad weather when it's unsafe to use helicopters."
National Grid is developing a companywide policy to ensure employees who use drones are properly certified and trained.
Mr. Hill noted that the utility has also tested a transmission line inspection robot that was developed by a subsidiary of Hydro Quebec in collaboration with National Grid's United Kingdom colleagues. The device attaches to a transmission line to do close-up inspections and can make minor repairs on the spot. He said robotics and drone technology were part of its continuing effort to improve value and performance.
Keolis Commuter Services, the MBTA's partner which operates and maintains the commuter rail network, has three certified commercial drone pilots and uses drones to help maintain the rail-system network and target efficient use of manpower and equipment when inspecting and maintaining the system, according to Tory Mazzola, director of public affairs.
"It's a cost saver for us. It's a piece of technology that can cover a very wide area," he said.
According to a statement from Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard, MassDOT's Aeronautics Division purchased a drone system in 2016.
This year the agency began drafting a drone policy and demonstrated the system's capabilities, including bridge inspections for highway and rail divisions, tunnel inspection for the MBTA, runway inspections for the Aeronautics Division, simulated aircraft accident investigation and simulated emergency management exercise.
A drone pilot training program is under development at MassDOT.
The potential for public safety use of drones is broad, but local officials say the new Part 107 rules raised new questions and, with the certification requirement, a costly obstacle.
Uxbridge Fire Chief William Kessler said his department purchased a drone more than a year ago with money from a donation. Before the new rules went into effect in late August 2016, his department used the drone to locate people whose boat had swamped on the Blackstone River and to pinpoint the source of a brush fire.
The Uxbridge Police Department had requested drone assistance to search for missing persons on three occasions.
Police "called us out two weeks ago (to find swamped canoeists) and I said, 'Sorry, we can't fly. I can't risk it.' "
The problem? No one in the Fire Department is certified as a remote pilot, and the chief said the cost of sending firefighters to training would be prohibitive.
Chief Kessler shared an email exchange he had last August with the FAA requesting guidance for his small fire department. The response he received said that looking for lost or capsized people, or brush fires, would not constitute a recreational/hobby event. Therefore, the department could only operate a drone if the operator passed the remote pilot certificate requirements or operated as a public aircraft operator, another expensive and time-consuming avenue.
Even the requirements to apply for a waiver, which include extensive analysis of plans, costs and benefits, alternative options and legal documentation would be too costly, according to Chief Kessler.
"To me, it's another one of those unfunded mandates," he said.
Uxbridge Police Chief Jeffrey A. Lourie said questions about restrictions such as not flying over people and other privacy laws have held police departments back from adopting drones.
"I would love to (use it); it would make sense and be cost-effective," Chief Lourie said. "But the last thing I want to do is lose a case because we didn't follow proper procedure."
Grafton Police Chief Normand A. Crepeau Jr. said his department is hosting a training session on drones for police officers from around the region on Oct. 4.
"That's why we're going to have the training: so people know what they can and can't do," he said.
©2017 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.