Preparedness

Texas Students Undergo Drone Training for Public Safety Use

Students will receive training through a partnership between a drone operations and consulting firm and the Sharyland Independent School District.

by Molly Smith, The Monitor, McAllen, Texas / August 15, 2018

(TNS) — “When you take the test, make sure you read and understand the question and answers and draw the scenario out,” John David Franz Jr. reminded the incoming high school seniors seated in front of him.

While applicable to almost any testing situation, Franz’s advice wasn’t geared toward the typical exam most students take. Rather, he was helping a dozen or so Sharyland High School students prepare for their remote pilot certificate exam — the first step toward operating drones legally for a law enforcement agency or private company.

The students spent last Thursday reviewing airspace, weather and aircraft performance, all topics on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Drone Knowledge Test.

As president of S.O.A.R.D. Solutions LLC, a drone operations and consulting firm in McAllen, Franz frequently gives certification courses to working professionals in law enforcement, emergency operations and engineering fields.

Through a new partnership between the company and Sharyland Independent School District, students will receive this training, and then some.

“When they graduate, they’re not only going to be certified, but they’ll have logged training hours to show they’ve actually put the work in,” Franz said of the partnership, the first of its kind in Texas. “These students will have more experience and flight time than most of your first responders and public safety drone pilots.”

Taking the 40-hour certification course, administered through a four-day period, and passing the drone knowledge test are just the first steps: Sharyland High School and Pioneer High School students in the Career and Technical Education (CTE) program’s Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security practicum will spend the rest of the school year learning how drones are used for search and rescue operations and damage assessments, and will be exposed to 3-D mapping and thermography.

“People might see (drones) as a toy because you can buy one at Best Buy or at Walmart. They’re not really seeing it as a tool yet,” Franz said. “There have been some early adopters … but for the most part, I don’t think we’ve really capitalized in South Texas with drones to their full capability.”

Mostly, S.O.A.R.D. has helped launch drone programs at smaller agencies, such as the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office and volunteer fire department, and the Falfurrias and Raymondville police departments.

Drones “empower the smaller agencies,” Franz said. “Resources are scarce and they need to use them to their full capacity to be effective.”

The company has also provided training to Weslaco’s police and fire departments, the Edinburg and Mission fire departments, Cameron County Emergency Management & Fire Marshal Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s law enforcement division. S.O.A.R.D. also hopes to partner with more Valley school districts in the near future.

Because drone technology is relatively new, public safety agencies and commercial drone operators, such as realtors and engineers, may not be familiar with the laws regarding drone use, Franz said.

“While (inadvertently violating a law) may help you on the ground, it’s going to hurt you in the long-run,” he said, giving the example of how evidence illegally collected by a drone is later inadmissible in court.

The Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security practicum is one of the district’s top three most popular career clusters, Sharyland ISD CTE Director Yoelia Nava said.

“We ask business and industry partners what’s trending, what’s the newest technology,” Nava said of some of the factors the district considered when adding this component to the existing year-long practicum course. “We were looking at how we could redesign, enhance and improve what we already have (for students).”

Eternity Garcia, 17, hopes to work as a firefighter when she graduates from Sharyland High School next spring and only recently learned drones could be used for search and rescue operations after seeing a video on YouTube.

“I always wanted to be in law enforcement,” Garcia said, noting that she narrowed down her career interest after competing in a firefighter search and rescue competition this past spring. Finding a baby in a timed obstacle course simulating a house fire was the objective of the competition, which required her to wear full protective gear while identifying tools.

“It’s hard and time consuming,” she said of the remote pilot certification course. “It’s not just the in-class hours, it’s after class hours when you’re reading over the materials.”

Representatives from the law enforcement agencies that S.O.A.R.D. has worked with will attend the practicum class throughout the year, Nava said, so “students (not) only have the certification and know how to fly a drone, but know how the actual entities here near us are using (drones) for security and law enforcement purposes.”

“Because they will have this skill set, they’re going to be that much better at the job,” Franz said of students who may find employment with an agency without a drone program, adding that they’ll have the know-how to introduce drone technology to their future employer.

Garcia took her remote pilot certification exam Monday and passed. The multiple-choice exam consisted of “almost exactly everything we went over (in the certification course),” she said.

msmith@themonitor.com

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©2018 The Monitor (McAllen, Texas)

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