11:23 AM

Pilotless Flights

CAP Commander Teaches University Drone Piloting Course in Maine

By Sheila Pursglove
Contributing Writer

From CAP Volunteer

Up in the sky — it’s a bird, it’s a plane … actually, it could be a drone, and these Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) may play a huge role in Civil Air Patrol missions in the future.

According to CAP Northeast Region Commander Col. Dan Leclair, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is eager for state emergency management agencies to have drone assets for post-disaster photography as well as search and rescue missions.

“I see ground teams taking a DJI Mavic or some type of fold-up drone out of their 24-hour pack and assisting with ground searches or disaster photography when we cannot get aircraft to the area,” Leclair said. “Since new radio-controlled airplane technology is very like what is being used by the U.S. Air Force in its Remotely Piloted Aircraft, making the connection between today’s drone technology and UASes/RPAs is easy.

“CAP Operations has started a UAS program within a few test wings, and in the Northeast Region states some of the wings are starting to train for search and rescue with drones,” he said. “CAP currently has two drone STEM Kits for cadets to explore the technology, and a summertime UAS Flight Academy where cadets can learn to fly drones.”

A self-described aviation junkie, Leclair has been flying model airplanes — mostly hand-thrown gliders and control line airplanes — since boyhood, and he now owns numerous fixed- and rotary-winged radio-controlled drones. His favorite is an all-carbon-fiber quadcopter that he races at speeds of up to 100 mph. “Drone racing is becoming popular and can be seen on ESPN’s ‘Drone Racing League’ show,” he said. “It’s absolutely a handful to fly but lots of fun.”

A 2,000-hour FAA-certified airline transport pilot who flies as a CAP mission pilot, Leclair is on the front lines of educating people about this evolving technology as an instructor at the University of Maine at Augusta, the first institution of higher learning in the state to offer a drone piloting course.

Four years ago, Leclair saw an opportunity to start a UAS Flight Academy for cadets; he also pitched the concept of a UAS minor as a part of a bachelor’s degree in aviation to longtime friend Greg Jolda, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and aviation coordinator for the university.

After connecting Leclair with Dr. Tom Abbott, who coordinates new initiatives in the aviation department, Abbott and Jolda introduced Leclair to the UMA dean, provost and president. With their blessing and a $250,000 University of Maine System Research Investment Fund seed grant, a UAS program was launched in September, a few days after the FAA published new rules for UASes.

“It was at that point all the stars aligned and we had a program,” Leclair said.

The first seven-week noncredit course — a Commercial Pilot Drone Ground School — started in mid-October with 37 students. Participants gained the knowledge to sit for the new Remote Pilot Knowledge Test and to earn a Remote Pilot Certificate, allowing them to fly drones in national airspace for commercial purposes and to be paid for their services.

“We had a mix of people with all kinds of reasons to fly UASs commercially — Realtors to photograph houses, land managers to do island surveys, construction workers for inspections, professional photographers and some folks starting new drone businesses,” Leclair said.

A second Commercial Pilot Drone Ground School started in March, and this fall, UMA will start courses for the UAS minor.

“These courses will help our students with the rules involved, UAS operations, how to design and build both fixed- and rotary-wing drones, and finally how to plan and execute large-scale missions using drones that have wingspans of over 15 feet and can fly for long periods,” Leclair said.

After mastering the basics of flying and hovering 5-inch quadcopters indoors, students graduate to the outdoors to use large quadcopters capable of carrying mounted cameras, as well as larger fixed-wing drones that can perform loops and other tricks. The drone fleet includes aircraft with FLIR (forward looking infrared) sensors both fixed- and rotary-winged, with some that cost more than a used Cessna.

“We have small trainers to large aircraft with 15-foot wingspans that can stay aloft for many hours, and we’re one of the few universities that fly aircraft on campus,” Leclair said. “We currently have two main flying fields as well as the campus quad just outside our office.” Future plans include a hangar and a paved 900-foot runway.

A member of a national committee studying the use of drones, Leclair works with people throughout the aviation and drone industry with the goal of being able to safely fly UASes.

“We’ve not even started to imagine what drones will be used for, and my goal is that when we find those uses we’ll have the pilots to fly them, and hopefully many of our cadets and members will be those pilots,” he said. “It’s a new and emerging billion-dollar industry, and it’s exciting to be a part of the development of pilots for this new technology.”

Civil Air Patrol Director of Operations John Desmarais said CAP’s aerospace education program has provided hundreds of STEM-based kits for hands-on learning opportunities— internally both for CAP units and externally for Air Force Junior ROTC units and teachers. CAP also is working toward operational capabilities to support missions with these mini-UASes, Desmarais said.

“Nine units are working with a customized hexacopter system developed with the help of the DHS Science and Technology Office to allow CAP ground teams to collect imagery of an emergency incident and get it to first responders quickly,” he said. “There are also personnel looking at other commercial off-the-shelf system copters to provide first-person-view capabilities to responders, and we’re also looking at more fixed-wing UAVs as well that could fly longer and collect imagery over greater areas.” Desmarais said these systems are going to change “how we all do business.” He added CAP members will need to rely on their aviation experience and resourcefulness to meet the mission needs of customers.

“It’s definitely a changing world, and these systems are part of our aviation world, so we need to embrace them,” he said. “CAP’s stated goal is to have an operational capability in all of our wings by 2020, but we’re hopeful to get there much sooner. A lot of that will depend on funding and limitations in the changing landscape of this industry. Our personnel are definitely interested and willing to work to make this succeed.”