Drone Corps: 12-Month Apprenticeship to Train Next Generation of Drone Pilots and Technicians

drone corpsNew Drone Corps program to offer training to potential drone operators

By Jim Magill

As autonomous drones gain regulatory approval and begin to play an ever-increasing role in American economy over the next several years, the demand for a new generation of drone pilots and technicians will grow exponentially.

Seeking to meet this demand for skilled drone workers, Drone Corps, a 12-month apprenticeship training program, approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, plans to launch its first class early next year. The Drone Corps, which is designed to operate for at least five years, could train as many as 1.4 million drone operations over the life of the program.

“We created Drone Corps to create jobs for individuals between ages 17 and 24,” said Jim Mikel, Drone Corps’ director general. Mikel said the program will be geared to providing a combination of virtual and hands-on training in the operation of drones. The training will be geared for young adults whose educational and employment opportunities have been curtailed by coronavirus lockdowns.

“The most important thing is getting … these individuals out in the work force. They’ve been home for this entire time,” he said.

Drone Corps has partnered with several drone-related associations and software companies, and educational institutions to provide the training. The cost of tuition for the program is $15,000. Under the program, students sign a 12-month contract to work 40 hours a week for the Drone Corps for a 12-month period. Participants get paid $15 an hour, for the first three months, at the end of which period they are tested on the core competencies that they’ve acquired.

At the end of the first three months, students will be required to pass the FAA’s Part 107 exam, in order to become licensed drone pilots. Later lessons will teach students advanced skills needed to qualify for drone related jobs in a variety of fields.

By the time they’ve reached the fourth quarterly period, students will have achieved 2,000 hours of awarded completions and mastered six core competencies, such as learning to communicate with air traffic control (ATC), including position and altitude reporting. At another level in their training, students will demonstrate competency in first-person-view flying by taking part in unmanned aerial vehicle races.

After demonstrating their mastery of the core competencies at the end of three-month period, students will receive a raise, to $18 per hour with their pay increasing to $24 per hour in the last three months.

Students also will learn about the operations of autonomous vehicles that operate on land and in the water, as well as in the air.

Mikel said the program will prepare its graduates to be able to enter the work forces in diverse fields such as agriculture, drone deliveries, surveying and mapping, and building and infrastructure inspection.

“There’s going to be a high demand in all those areas over the next five years and our program allows these individuals to complete this course and at the end of 12 months have a very good-paying job,” he said. The Department of Labor estimates that Drone Corps graduates on average will qualify for jobs paying $32 per hour and up.

Labor Department sanctioned program

Mikel, whose background includes developing training programs for businesses and government agencies, previously created jobs in the field of energy efficiency for veterans returning from war. He owns St. Louis, Missouri-based Spirit Technologies LLC-B and has registered the Drone Corps with the Labor Department’s internship program under Spirit Technologies name, with the registration number 2021-TX-93471.

He said the Drone Corps is preparing to launch its first class of students, with a goal of recruiting 80,000 participants in the first year of the program. Depending on the number of registrations, plans call for starting a new class of students every three months.

“We’re about to roll out a pre-registration process,” he said.

Drone Corps will run a commercial on Disney+ and Hulu streaming television networks to promote the training program and allow potential students living in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Kansas to pre-register. Potential students in the area will be referred to their local community college district, which can help them secure financial assistance, such as through a Pell Grant or the GI Bill, to help pay the cost of tuition for the training.

Students who preregister will be sent a questionnaire to determine if they have a high school diploma or GED and meet the other basic requirements to be eligible for the program.

Participants in the program will be required to work at a regular 40-hour per week job, with some Saturday work involved. “Sometime during the week they’ll have an assignment to be completed by Saturday before noon,” Mikel said.

Combination of virtual and real-world training

The first segment of the program will consist of remote training with live instructors provided by the Nevada Business Aviation Association (NVBAA), in preparation for students achieving their FAA 107 license. Later in the course, students will get the opportunity to engage in drone-related projects within their own communities.

“Our training program is the most comprehensive drone pilot training and workshop,” said NVBAA President Reza Karamooz. “It’s not just teaching a student to be certified to be a pilot. We also teach, what to do with the drone, such as 3D mapping, bridge inspection.”

Karamooz said, as with previous NVBAA training sessions, students will be assigned an account that allows them to track their progress online. “Anyone who goes through our online course and gets 85% on our test averages 85% or higher on the FAA test,” he said.

In another segment of the course, students will learn about drone videography and cinematography in preparation for possible careers in the entertainment or media industries. Skip Fredricks, director of Hollywood Drones, who will be directing this part of the course, will offer a hybrid of live instruction and hands-on training. He will live-stream lessons to students, who can then mimic his actions with their own drones at their own locations, similar to the type of instruction offered for Peloton bikes.

“We’re going to create projects to enhance students’ photography and cinematography skills,” said Fredricks, who has received two Emmy nominations and 40 Telly Awards for his work in cinematography, and aerial photography and drone cinematography.

He added that he also hopes to be able to help place some Drone Corps students into internships and jobs through his connections in the entertainment industry.

Jim Magill is a Houston-based writer with almost a quarter-century of experience covering technical and economic developments in the oil and gas industry. After retiring in December 2019 as a senior editor with S&P Global Platts, Jim began writing about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, robots and drones, and the ways in which they’re contributing to our society. In addition to DroneLife, Jim is a contributor to Forbes.com and his work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, U.S. News & World Report, and Unmanned Systems, a publication of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

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