SALINA, Kan. -- Interest in Kansas State University Salina's Introduction to Unmanned Aircraft Systems course is soaring, with enrollment up 200 percent since fall 2010.
The 22 students currently enrolled in the class agree on why they're taking it. They view unmanned aircraft systems as the future of the aviation industry.
"It's the future, so we better know about it," said Brandon Stroda, senior in aviation maintenance, Junction City, Kan.
"It's great to see this level of interest," said Kurt Barnhart, head of K-State's aviation department. "It's been a lot of work to get this program established, and it's very rewarding to see it pay off with high enrollments."
Most of the students in the class are professional pilot majors, a few are majoring in aviation maintenance, and some are focusing solely on unmanned aircraft systems. They view K-State Salina as a leader in the unmanned aviation field.
"The unmanned industry is so new that K-State is helping develop the guidelines right now," said Shawn Dionne, junior in professional pilot, Cumming, Ga.
For Tony Taddiken, freshman in unmanned aircraft systems, Salina, Kan., the program is a chance to develop his longtime interest in remote control aircraft into a career. "Unmanned aircraft systems seems to fit a niche that I'm interested in," he said.
Some students in the program, like Dionne and Taddiken, have military experience. Others, like Clinton Finney, junior in professional pilot, Wichita, Kan., plan to enter the military and use their unmanned flight experience. Finney likes that he could pilot an Air Force unmanned aircraft from the ground, so he doesn't have to worry about being shot down.
Other students are taking the class because it teaches more than just flying unmanned aircraft.
"I like that you can work on unmanned aircraft as well as fly them," said Desmond Calloway, senior in professional pilot, Minneapolis, Minn. "I thought about being an engineer, but engineers don't get much of a chance to enjoy the aircraft they build. With this program I'll learn how to build them and fly them."
The UAS program is located on K-State's Salina campus. The campus' proximity and access to the restricted airspace at the Smoky Hills Weapon Range means students are getting hands-on, real-world experience using common unmanned systems operating software and with mission planning, said Eric Shappee, associate professor of unmanned aircraft systems.
"This experience is quite valuable and will give K-State students the edge when it comes to getting hired," Shappee said.
"We're extremely fortunate to be one of the only universities with this type of amenity just out our front door. Our students are gaining multiple hours of flight time and experience on numerous different systems," said Josh Brungardt, unmanned aircraft systems program director.
The unmanned aerial systems program currently offers a certificate. University officials anticipate that a bachelor's degree will be offered when the fall semester begins in August.
K-State's unmanned aircraft systems program office is home to the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Technology Evaluation Center, which evaluates existing unmanned aircraft systems technology and platforms for their suitability in disaster response scenarios, and will train operators/maintainers. The office also supports a full surface mount technology lab devoted to unmanned vehicle avionics and payload miniaturization.
The unmanned aircraft systems program office is operated by K-State's Applied Aviation Research Center. The center's charter is to advance aerospace technology through the application of research capabilities in propulsion, airframe, avionics and aviation training. The program office collaborates with military organizations and the private sector to focus on developing unmanned flight in the nation's airspace and training pilots and operators of unmanned aerial systems.
K-State also establishes criteria for unmanned aircraft system flight operations, including activity at the Smoky Hill Weapons Range, and eventually at the Herington unmanned aerial system flight facility. The university's program office establishes policies and procedures to enable both military and civilian organizations to fly and test at the area facilities.