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Harper College Preparing Students for Jobs in Drone Tech

During a visit from U.S. Rep. Sean Casten and FAA administrator Rebecca MacPherson, Harper College students and professors showed off the school's drone program and discussed the industry's rising importance.

Harper College drone program 2.jpg
Harper College student and drone pilot Fernanda de Souza Ramos Kuzuhara describes drone applications to U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Illinois, and Rebecca MacPherson, regional administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, during a presentation and tour Oct. 29, 2021 of a drone technology program at Harper College in Palatine. The program is part of the FAA's "Unmanned Aerial Systems Collegiate Training Initiative."
H. Rick Bamman / Pioneer Press
(TNS) — U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D- Downers Grove, and a representative from the Federal Aviation Administration visited Harper College in Palatine Friday to hear about the school’s drone program and talk to students and school officials about it, but a planned live demonstration was canceled due to rain.

Instead of seeing an actual flying drone, those in attendance were invited to try out a computer simulation of one, which students said handles almost exactly like a real-life device.

Casten spoke highly of Harper College, overall, saying the community college excels in meeting the changing demands of the job market.

“I am gonna sit and hopefully by the end of this [presentation and tour], be 5, 10 percent as smart as you guys are on this topic,” he said to students and staff.

In addition to Palatine, where the college is located, Casten’s multi-county 6th Congressional District includes all or parts of the Lake County towns of Barrington, Barrington Hills, Forest Lake, Lake Barrington, Lake Zurich, North Barrington, Palatine, Port Barrington and South Barrington.

The presentation at Harper College Friday came after the school’s drone technology program received recognition from the FAA earlier this year. Mukila Maitha, professor of the program, said Friday the program grew out of a 2015 geospatial offering at the college. As drone imaging became more advanced, it became more apparent what could be done with the technology, Maitha said.

To prove the device’s ability, a few years ago Maitha used drones to create a detailed image of the campus as part of a project. Prior to the project, the college had paid an outside company about $6,000 every few years to do the imaging. But with drones, Maitha’s class could do it as a service project, he said.

“We captured almost 3,000 images, stitched them together and demonstrated the use of the technology,” Maitha said.

After 2019, Maitha said he began exploring more and more what drones could do and began meeting with other colleges with similar programs. With the demand for drone certification high, Maitha pitched the program to Harper College officials and the school got to work ramping it up, he said.

It was formally launched in January 2021, he said.

“This puts us in a unique position to serve not only our (congressional) district, but the entire Chicago area,” Maitha said.

After Maitha spoke, he invited a few students from the program to speak on their experiences and the different imaging with drones they’ve done .

Fernanda de Souza Ramos Kuzuhara, a student, said she came from Brazil with her husband and children 14 years ago. Originally trained as an engineer, Kuzuhara said she had an interest in pursuing a career in emergency management. It was through this interest she became acquainted with drones.

Kuzuhara said there are several ways drones can help in emergencies. One example she gave was an infrared scanner attached to a drone, which she said can detect body heat and motion to help tell if someone is alive.

“A serious fire or police department would have a good drone,” Kuzuhara said. “And a good pilot to use it.”

While drones were the primary focus of the event Friday, shortages in the field of aviation were also discussed. Rebecca MacPherson, FAA regional administrator for the Great Lakes Region, said the federal agency has been partnering with colleges to get students interested in aviation, citing the shortage of pilots and mechanics in the field.

MacPherson said the shortages in aviation and the growth of drones are tied together. Part of the reason aviation is losing candidates is due to the demand for drone workers, she said. She explained that the aviation field used to pull heavily from the military, but even they are now training drone workers more than ever.

“We’ve pretty much lost that military pipeline, which means we need to fill the void,” she said.

Despite the shortage, MacPherson spoke on the importance of drone technology and all the different uses that come with it. She gave an example of a scientist going into a wetland and potentially harming fragile plants and other life. With a drone, that risk isn’t a factor, she said.

During the program tour, Casten also asked about the ethics of drones and how that is evolving over time. Students and officials said they try to stay up on changing policies related to privacy and flying restrictions. Maitha said teaching safety is a core feature of the program.

“It’s those gray areas where it’s not clearly defined by law … that we still ask students to think about those scenarios,” he said.

After the demonstration, Casten discussed with Pioneer Press the prospect of drone regulation. He emphasized that education around drone use should be a priority. With all the uses the devices can have, he said it comes down to whether we use that power for “good or evil.”

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