Fort Smith Public Schools to roll out drone program in fall semester, partner with UAFS

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 830 views 

Two Fort Smith high schools will join only four others in the state to launch an unmanned aircraft system (UAS, aka drones) curriculum this fall. The program will take off at Northside and Southside High Schools simultaneously, thanks to a $100,000 grant approved by Kathi Turner, director of the Arkansas Career and Technical Education program.

Martin Mahan, director of secondary education at Fort Smith Public Schools (FSPS), said the two schools would test “similar” pilot programs to determine the curriculum going forward. One will be through ExplorNet and the other Aerial Alaska.

“They won’t be extensively different programs,” Mahan told Talk Business & Politics. “The equipment in each will differ some as well as the philosophy, but the outcomes will be the same. There will be some hard copy resources, but a lot of the content students learn will be online. Our teachers will receive some curriculum training and pilot’s license training, and the state will come in and assess the two programs, compare, and recommend one of the two as they look to expand it statewide.”

Mahan contacted Turner about setting up the UAS program at Fort Smith after attending a demonstration at Beebe, which was the first district in the state to implement. Mahan said the Beebe school district “did a phenomenal job” with its program and he could anticipate Fort Smith hosting site visits for other area schools and being a leader for the region in UAS technology.

To get there, utilizing partnerships will be key, and the district has already linked up with Ascending Impressions, a local company managed by two pilots in the 188th who, ironically, first came to Mahan’s attention at the Beebe presentation.

“They will be a resource for us,” Mahan said, adding that other local businesses and industries have expressed interest in offering internships.

Additionally, the district will partner with the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS), to provide options for interested students beyond high school. UAFS is offering a non-credit course for those interested in being a licensed commercial drone pilot. The 40-hour course, which runs from March 13-17, is designed to be the first of “many” programs related to unmanned aircraft.

Students will acquire basic aviation knowledge needed to pass the initial Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 knowledge exam and obtain a remote Pilot in Command certificate required to conduct small UAS commercial operations. Mahan said “a lot of our students will have exactly the same type of program before they get to college, but the program UAFS offers will spin out to give students even more options.”

“It is a great partnership with UAFS because they have a lot of things to offer that we can funnel our students in to,” he said.

Looking ahead to how Fort Smith’s program could play out, Mahan said as the UAFS program develops, FSPS graduates will be able to feed into more advanced levels locally or into one of the more mature STEM-related fields the university offers. Henderson State in Arkadelphia also offers “one of the premier pilot’s facilities in the nation,” Mahan added, “so there may be students, who have an interest in becoming a commercial pilot, and we can feed them there as well.”

In a study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, the UAS industry is forecast to create more than 600 jobs and nearly $500 million in economic impact in Arkansas in the next 10 years. The consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers has predicted the world drone market could be valued at $127 billion by 2020.

A microcosm of that demand is already present at FSPS in the number of students who have shown interest. Mahan said there are 91 at Southside wanting to sign up and an additional 60-70 at Northside. How many enter into the fall program will largely depend on compatibility with student schedules, but Mahan hopes to have “about 65” enrolled in each program with “more concrete numbers locked down by the end of March.” That’s also when he hopes to have staff hired. The district will focus on purchasing equipment once personnel is in place so the instructor “can begin to tinker with all the different components and get everything set up before kids start rolling in.”

On the equipment front, the district will move from the one student-made drone operating at Darby Junior High School to a Tier I drone, “which is probably the size of a plate,” Mahan said. From there, “we’ll move up to a Phantom III or a Phantom IV, which is what you see most of the time in pictures. It’s got the four-propeller systems and the audio-video. It’s programmable and manually operated, and it will reach commercial heights.”

Finally, the more advanced portion of the coursework will incorporate a Tier III drone, “which is a fixed-wing drone. It looks like a small stealth bomber, and it will move at higher elevations.” The district will use the $100,000 grant to equip both programs with these drones as well as 3D printers, 4K computers, soldering guns for repairs/building, GPS systems, software, and all instructor training costs, Mahan said.

The program will consist of three phases, allowing students the opportunity to earn a commercial pilot’s license by the age of 16.

“When they walk across the stage at graduation, they can immediately go to work in a viable career. They don’t need to go to college. They don’t need to go to any other industry.”

However, Mahan added, it is the district’s hope students will see the expanded opportunities available to them.

“Once they have that career set – that certification, that license – they’ll realize they can work for real estate or utility companies; they could be recruited into the military; they could work in television, marketing, aeronautical engineering, aviation. A lot of industries now are using unmanned aerial systems to do warehouse inventories instead of a person. If you watch the news, it seems like something new is spinning out of this every day.”

Mahan continued: “With unmanned aerial systems, a lot of people think they’re just learning to operate a remote vehicle, but they’re going to learn weather patterns, aviation, map reading. They’re going to learn how to communicate with air traffic control. The whole assessment they take for UAS will be everything they would take for a pilot’s license except for the flying time. It’s very rigorous and complex and will spark a lot of options for kids that are STEM- and career-related.”

What is important for educators, Mahan said, is to give students options that are “career- and college-ready.”

“And when I say that, I mean we want as many students to leave high school with the option to go right into a career and/or college. Either one. Whatever they choose. We want them to see the connections and to see that we are living in a world where you really cannot limit yourself on a specific area.”

Mahan said the UAS program will also leave students with “forward-thinking” skills and expertise like 3D printing (aka “additive manufacturing”) and computer coding that will be used to create software to communicate with the UAS.

“It’s hard to out-think the future, but we feel this is going to leave kids with a lot of expertise that is transferable, and these days, skills really need to be transferable.”