Drone minor offered at K-State’s Manhattan campus

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Starting this semester, students at Kansas State’s Manhattan campus now have the opportunity to earn a minor in unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones. The K-State Polytechnic Campus has offered an unmanned aircraft systems program since 2007. Now, courses in the program are offered in Manhattan.

Michael Most, unmanned aircraft systems academic program lead and associate professor, said he and his staff are eager to publicize the minor and get more students enrolled.

Most said he has taught in the aviation industry for almost two decades and has always been interested in drones. When he came to K-State, Most said his first intention was not to get involved with the unmanned aircraft systems, but the opportunity was brought forward to him, and he was interested in the future of the technology.

“I could see it was a fascinating area,” Most said. “Emerging, highly technical, going places (and) a lot of application for the technology.”

Most said there are multiple uses and regulations for these complex drones.

“The technology is emerging and as it continues to evolve, I think we will see more and more applications,” Most said. “Right now, the big applications are for infrastructure and inspection and to some extent, precision ag work.”

Two tracks for students

In a partnership between the Salina and Manhattan campuses, K-State students can take one of two career tracks in the drone minor.

The first track, called the aviator track, is for students who have a private pilot’s license in an instrument rating. The track is mostly intended for pilots and others who have licenses to fly.

The second track, called the non-aviator track, is intended to help non-major students learn more about unmanned air systems and how they can apply the technology to their fields of study. Although the tracks are different, the curricula are still similar.

Each of the tracks contains three classes in unmanned air systems.

“There’s an introduction class that is common to both tracks, then they go out into the aviator and the non-aviator tracks,” Most said. “The second class will be a class in which they construct an aircraft. The third class is an autopilot class where they integrate into the aircraft that they previously built and autopilot to enable that aircraft to fly autonomously and gather data.”

The final class involves data acquisition and data processing. This class allows the students to go out and fly aircraft to capture and process images. Students then upload these images for use in projects that will benefit them in their fields of study.

Chris Senn, teaching-assistant professor of aviation at the Polytechnic campus in Salina, and Durant Bridges, assistant professor of aviation maintenance management in Manhattan, both currently teach the introduction course. Most said he hopes to offer these classes over the summer and is optimistic they will be offered every summer once funding is figured out for the classes.

Bridges, a licensed pilot, said he has been involved with aviation for a while and is fascinated with aircraft.

“I spend a lot of my time working for the airlines, and I did a decent amount of research when I was preparing for my graduate degrees, and so everything was always related to aircraft and maintenance and flying,” Bridges said. “I eventually got in touch with people who were involved with UAS and got very interested in that.”

Pathway through the minor

Introduction to unmanned aircraft systems, the first class of the minor, involves basic design, missions and the history of aviation, as well as data processing, collection and studying different types of sensors.

Bridges said he likes to bring in experts to his class to share their unmanned aircraft systems experience.

“It’s a general survey class where we brush on the surface and get everybody on the same page with the basic knowledge base,” Bridges said.

Once students pass the introduction class, they then fly the unmanned aircraft system they have built in an autonomous flight simulation lab, which Senn teaches in Salina.

“Once they enter my class, they will integrate an autopilot into their manually-made unmanned aircraft systems,” Senn said. “I take them through how to do so, as well as how to set up the systems through the use of open software, and we get into decoding and programming as well.”

Ultimately, the “alteration of these systems” allow the operators complete control over the aircraft systems, Senn said.

“(Pilots) must know what the aircraft is going to do or is supposed to do at all times,” Senn said. “That way if something goes wrong, they know how to identify it and handle it appropriately.”

Senn said K-State has one of the top-notch agronomy programs in the nation, if not the top. He said precision agriculture and other industries will benefit immensely from the use of unmanned aircraft systems technology.

“(This technology) can be important in order for (students) to apply it in whatever field or industry they desire,” Senn said. “I think that’s how it will help K-State.”

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