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'The Future of Aviation': U. of Maine Offers Class on Drones

The flying is the fun part, but the course work is what's most important

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    University of Maine students are taking a non-credit course to learn to fly drones. (Published Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2016)

    From package delivery, to photography, to search and rescue operations, drones are the future of flight. One New England university is preparing students to be the next generation of pilots.

    Students at the University of Maine at Augusta taking a non-credit drone course learn how to fly small stunt drones to get familiar with the remote controller.

    "It's the wild, wild west of aviation," said Dan Leclair, the course's professor, an aviation instruction and a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol.

    The flying is the fun part, but the course work is what's most important. Professor Leclair teaches the students about weather patterns, airport maps and all the rules they need to know to pass the FAA’s test for commercial pilots.

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    "The course teaches you to be safe, and how to fly the air craft in the national air space system," said Leclair, who teaches the class with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Greg Jolda.

    UMA is among the few colleges in the nation to offer a course of this kind.

    "The opportunity is wide open," said Tom Abbott, the UMA's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Project Manager.

    Abbott came up with the idea for the drone course, realizing that companies are on the brink of incorporating drones into everyday business practices. Amazon, for example, is exploring drone delivery for packages.

    "This is the future of aviation," said Abbott. "I said, 'Hey. Why can't we do this?'"

    Abbott wants to add more drone classes, so UMA can offer a minor in drone piloting in its aviation degree program.

    The class is only in its first semester, but has quickly taken off: 38 students are enrolled, between the ages of 16 to 70.

    "I've always been into aviation and photography," said Gabriel Roig, a high school student who decided to take the drone course so he can someday open a small business. "I think it would be cool career path [to fly drones] to survey land for real estate companies."

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    "She was really small when I rescued her," said Joanne Lefson, who manages the South African Farm Sanctuary, a haven for rescued farm animals where the pig now lives. "She's very smart and intelligent so I placed a few balls and some paintbrushes and things in her pen, and it wasn't long before I discovered that she really liked the bristles and the paintbrush...She just really took a knack for it."

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    An older student in the course, Jacob Gerritsen, has a similar plan.

    "My son and I are starting a company called Pegasus Visuals," said Gerritsen. "We are open for business to do inspections of dams, wind turbines or real estate."

    Gerritsen has been flying for years, and wanted his FAA certification to turn his hobby into a business venture. He said the UMA class helped him pass the FAA test with flying colors.

    "I understand aviation a lot more," he said. "I understand the rules. I understand why they have the rules."

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