Aspiring drone pilots get a little help earning their wings
Sarah Macey is the training and operations manager at the Virginia Tech Drone Park. Her driving motivation is to make it easier for students who are interested in drones to explore their curiosity and learn to fly capably and safely. The park’s latest initiative is offering small grants to help students get more serious about drones by bringing them closer to a key certification.
A Remote Pilot Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration is the drone equivalent of a driver’s license. It’s widely known as a Part 107 license — shorthand for 14 CFR Part 107, the federal regulations that cover commercial flights of small drones — and it’s required to fly a drone for business or commercial purposes, nonprofit work, or education. Under Virginia Tech’s drone policy, it’s also required for flights on Virginia Tech property or with aircraft the university owns.
“The Part 107 certificate is necessary for so many things,” Macey said. “One of my goals at the drone park is to look for ways to support students here, both through things like flight training, and education about drones and safety, but also through opportunities that can build their resume and help them in the future, like getting their Part 107.”
The certificate requires passing a knowledge exam that covers basic aviation principles, airspace classification, safety practices, federal regulations for drone use, and how to interpret the cryptic aviation weather reports and dense sectional charts that represent aviator-essential features like topographical information, visual checkpoints, and airspace classes in an intimidating jumble of coded lines and symbols. Tutorials and study guides for all this are widely available online for free; Drone Park staff are happy to help aspiring test takers, too. The test itself, though, costs $160.
Macey didn’t want that fee to be a barrier that kept a dedicated prospective pilot from getting certified. So she decided to start the grant program, which will refund the test fee for 15 undergraduates this spring (as long as they pass the exam by the end of the semester). To apply, students fill out a one-page form that asks why they’re interested, how they plan to use the certification, and how they expect it to advance their career. Applications are due Feb. 19; Macey expects to announce the winners in early March.
The Drone Park is managed by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, which joined forces with the College of Engineering and the Office of the Provost to build the unique facility three years ago. At 85 feet high, it’s the tallest drone park in the country. It has more than 3 million cubic feet of flight space. A drone lending library and adjacent lab make it easy for students to practice their skills and work on projects; experienced staff provide training and education.
“Our vision for the Drone Park was that it would become a resource for the whole campus,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering and ICTAS’ director. “Not just in terms of the physical infrastructure, but also a resource for information and training. Virginia Tech is nationally renowned for its drone research, and the drone park is a conduit for students to tap into that expertise and develop skills they can apply in their own careers. This program is another way we can help create opportunities for the students who are going to shape the evolution of this technology.”
A small cohort of interns help Macey staff the park. Three of them have gotten their Part 107 certificates, and more are studying for the exam now. Macey said that going through the certification process builds the students’ confidence and establishes a foundation of safety and regulatory knowledge that helps them move beyond recreational flying to more sophisticated applications. “They feel like they’ve earned a new level of respect in terms of teaching and talking about the technology,” she said.
One of those interns is Luis Pol, a senior computer science major who had never flown a drone before he started working at the park two and a half years ago on a tip from his roommate. Now, he plans to pursue a career in the drone industry after he graduates and is glad to have the Part 107 certificate on his resume.
It has also allowed him to flex his flying skills beyond the boundaries of the drone park, at the Drillfield, Lane Stadium, and other campus locations. His favorite project, he said, was getting aerial footage of Corps of Cadets training exercises that the cadets could use like game tapes to assess their performance.
“It’s a great way to be involved with different parts of the school and explore more outside your area of expertise,” Pol said of the certificate.
Preparing for the exam typically takes about 20 hours. Pol and two other interns who took the exam with him treated their study sessions as competitions, grilling each other on sectional charts and reciting the NATO phonetic alphabet backwards. All three passed with high scores.
Macey laughs when she remembers her own experience taking the Part 107 exam for the first time a few years ago.
“I didn’t know anyone else who had studied for it or gotten it, and I had no clue what I was doing,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about the program: Not just to help students pay for the test, but also to let them know that there’s a resource to help them study and ask questions, because I would have loved that. One of my goals is to make the process a lot less intimidating and more accessible.”
As for Pol, he just took the recurrent test to renew his certification. What’s his advice for someone preparing for the exam the first time? Study up on those sectional charts, which often pop up in the test questions. “You need to learn how to read a map.”
But mainly, he said, “Don’t be scared.”