An agreement between the University of Louisiana Monroe and the Federal Aviation Administration commits the university to develop students skilled enough in drone technology to be ready for the workforce upon graduation.
ULM is one of fewer than 100 two- and four-year institutions to join the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Collegiate Training Initiative, a collaborative effort begun earlier this year by the FAA. ULM officials signed an official memorandum of agreement in October.
The initiative, according to the FAA, is designed to ensure that new technology is safely incorporated into the National Airspace System and that qualified professionals are in the pipeline to satisfy the demand of the rapidly growing industry.
The FAA created the program under a congressional mandate.
"The FAA is serving as a kind of intermediary for schools that offer this kind of program to get together," said Dr. Paul Karlowitz, associate professor of aviation.
Through the networking efforts of the FAA, Karlowitz said, universities will be able to compare notes with each other concerning curriculum, technology, and training efforts.
ULM is the only Louisiana institution to offer a four-year degree in drone technology and the only state program in the consortium. The program is officially known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems Management and is part of ULM's College of Business and Social Sciences.
The Louisiana Board of Supervisors asked ULM to focus on drone technology, changing the focus and degree program from what once was a Bachelor of Science in Aviation. Although much of the aviation curriculum is still being taught, ULM is no longer awarding degrees in fixed-wing aviation. Still, Karlowitz said the study of aviation is essential to obtain a license to operate drones commercially.
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Management program has 30 students. It provides students with an analytical foundation to interpret data collected from the use of drones.
The program's overall goal is to prepare individuals to become competent, ethical, safety-conscious aviation professionals, ready to assume leadership roles in various aviation management careers.
The FAA provides members of the consortium its recognition that their programs are of the highest standards. "You have to measure up to their credentials," Karlowitz said.
The FAA will offer participating colleges and universities with the latest regulations and links to resources, recognition of participating institutions with a description of programs on its website, invitations to conferences and webinars, and a list of job openings in the industry.
"I don't expect any financial help from the FAA," Karlowitz said, "That's not what they do. But it is more visibility for our students and our program."
Karlowitz hopes the UAS CTI program will open up more opportunities for his students.
The ULM program has recently trained Louisiana State Police for 10 weeks to teach officers how to fly drones. "The FAA was very excited about that," Karlowitz said. Karlowitz continues to work with state police, processing crime scene photos taken by drones.
Karlowitz also was exploring a joint effort with Southern University just as the coronavirus pandemic hit. "They don't have drones, and we do. But they have a college of agriculture, and we don't," Karlowitz said. The plan called for ULM students to work with Southern's students making use of research done at ULM on how drone technology can scan the health of crops in the field. Karlowitz hopes this partnership can still happen.
Although these two efforts were instituted outside the consortium, they show the kind of partnerships that can grow from the FAA program, Karlowitz said.
Such programs fulfill ULM's side of the agreement. "We have to live up to our promise to train for jobs, to provide specific skills needed in the workforce," Karlowitz said.
The agreement initially runs for three years.
"I view with FAA memorandum of agreement as professional development for our program," Karlowitz said.
"With this new FAA program, the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Colligate Training Initiative, we have the opportunity to collaborate with not only the FAA, but other member institutions to further the development of the UAS workforce. We look forward to sharing training tools, resources, and guidelines for further the safe and ethical use of UAS in the National Airspace System," he said.