COCC plans for UAVs

Unmanned vehicles on way to aviation program

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

Even though federal regulations on unmanned aviation vehicle operators have not yet been announced, Central Oregon Community College is preparing for a UAV course of study within its aviation program.

COCC currently offers an introductory course in UAVs, and hopes to have a second simulation-based class ready by the spring. Outside of government programs, UAVs do not operate in domestic airspace, though American companies currently train pilots for foreign operations. President Obama, however, required the Federal Aviation Authority to propose rules for integrating UAVs into American airspace by 2015.

“No one yet knows what the FAA will require of UAV operators,” said Karl Baldessari, head of the COCC aviation program. “We do know what the machines look like, and there’s plenty of variety out there, and we know what it takes to operate them. But we’re waiting on the rules to be imposed.”

Baldessari said early indications point to the FAA requiring UAV operators to hold some form of a pilot’s license.

“You could be the best XBox-er in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’d understand airspace rules, weather or even the mechanics underlying the machine you are operating,” Baldessari said. “There’s also something to be said for feeling connected to what happens out there. If you crash into a bunch of rocks in Afghanistan, that’s one thing, but if you land in a schoolyard and take out three kids, that’s different. Pilots understand that better.”

Despite the anticipated pilot license requirement, Baldessari said it is rare for UAV operators to manually steer vehicles, as most directions are pre-programmed.

“Talking to people who have done this overseas and in Afghanistan or Iraq, it is a rare occasion when someone puts their hands on a controller to direct anything, and that it really only happens in an emergency situation,” Baldessari said. “It’s my impression that people would want a pilot and not a programmer in case of such an emergency.”

COCC plans to embed the UAV sequence within a more broad aviation course of study. Baldessari suggested early concepts involved a three-course UAV sequence, complemented by either airplane or helicopter training. The first course would be the current introductory class, followed by the second class based in a simulator. The third course would involve more simulations and actual flying missions.

“I don’t see us owning our own aircraft anytime soon, but it would be good to partner with an industry provider in the area,” Baldessari said.

COCC is well-positioned to find such partners. An item in the 2013-15 legislative budget allocated nearly $900,000 to create the Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence, which would include a flight-test site with a proposed location in Central Oregon. Additionally, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks has FAA approval to open a testing site in Warm Springs.

“The UAV education part is an important piece of the industry,” said Roger Lee, executive director of Economic Development for Central Oregon. “For the industry to grow, you have to have people who can operate the vehicles. By jumping in on the training, COCC is providing another piece of the puzzle for the industry.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com