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On the Rise

Readying Remote Pilots for a Drone Revolution

If you think drones are just toys for kids, John Benhart has some advice.

Look up.

“I don’t think everyone has quite grasped what drones are doing right now and what they have yet to do,” said Benhart, chair of IUP’s Geography and Regional Planning Department. “They’re delivering organs for transplant surgeries right now. They’ll be delivering packages soon. There are new mapping techniques coming from this. Drones are going to make a huge impact.”

Faculty members Christopher Schaney, left, and John Benhart, right, flew a drone with Kate Marodi and Jordan Hudzicki in November. (Brian Henry)

Faculty members Christopher Schaney, left, and John Benhart, right, flew a drone with Kate Marodi and Jordan Hudzicki in November. (Brian Henry)

Those expectations explain why Benhart and his faculty colleague Christopher Schaney created the Unmanned Aerial Systems certificate program two years ago. And since then, for lack of a better cliché, the program has really taken off.

“It’s a really good program,” said Jordan Hudzicki, a 2018 IUP graduate who, in addition to pursuing a master’s degree in geography at IUP, was one of 28 students enrolled in the drone certificate program in fall 2019. “You learn a lot about not just flying drones, but all the things they can be used for.”

To earn the certificate, students need to complete four courses totaling 12 credits. Along with the basics of drones and their potential uses, students learn about the laws surrounding drones and the ethics involved in flying them.

“When students finish,” Benhart said, “they’ll leave here with a certificate and a couple items for their portfolio. This is one of the things that will help them get good jobs.”

Benhart encourages his students to take the drone license exam the Federal Aviation Administration deems mandatory for most uses, from mapping to delivery to photography. So far, all of the program’s students who have taken the exam have passed it.

“They’re among the first wave of certified remote pilots in the United States,” he said. “There are 100,000 now, but 400,000 will be needed soon.”

The students, who come from majors across campus, have undertaken projects that both enhance their skill sets and help the local community. They’ve worked on mapping projects for the Windy Ridge Business and Technology Park in White Township; IUP’s Co-op Park; Confluence Park, to be developed just south of the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex; and the Hoodlebug Trail extension plan, which involved a number of local officials. 

Students are also getting practical experience with drones by helping Indiana Borough with its long-term plan to mitigate flooding caused by runoff from streams. Students mapped out the areas from above, which gives a better perspective of how water makes its way into neighborhoods and causes damage.

Projects like these have opened students’ eyes to the possibilities drones offer.

“Some people think you just take pictures with drones,” Hudzicki said. “But imagine taking a drone above a building on fire to see it from all angles. It could save a fireman’s life.”

Benhart said drones could help first responders in many ways, from aiding in searches for missing people to controlling crowds to delivering life-saving supplies.

“I’ve thought of a bunch of things they could be used for,” he said, “but I am sure there are many more.”

Drones can be used for more relaxing endeavors, too, as Hudzicki well knows. As an undergraduate, he began working at the Kovalchick Complex for Mary Ann Lambrinos, director of corporate sales.

A fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, Lambrinos had seen how the Penguins organization used a drone to fly over the crowd at PPG Paints Arena and collect video footage. She thought it would be a good idea for the Kovalchick Complex as well and gave Hudzicki the chance to try it. He started out working at IUP basketball games and eventually landed a part-time job with the Penguins, flying a blimp powered by a drone for 20 to 30 games a season.

Hudzicki developed such an interest in drones that he took and passed the FAA exam and became a licensed remote pilot before he graduated with his bachelor’s degree.

A drone positioned to face northeast from above the Oak Grove provided a view of Uhler, Johnson, and Stright halls across Oakland Avenue from Weyendt and Wilson, at right.

A drone positioned to face northeast from above the Oak Grove provided a view of Uhler, Johnson, and Stright halls across Oakland Avenue from Weyendt and Wilson, at right.

“I talked to Dr. Benhart a lot about it,” he said. “He told me that if I liked it that much, I should do it some more.”

Hudzicki thinks he has a future using drones to make an impact not only on his local community but on the world.

“With my background in geography, I’m looking to use my skills [with drones] to enhance whatever type of employment I get,” he said. “There are tons of applications already, and it’s such a new field that people are still figuring it out.”

That’s all Benhart and Schaney wanted when they started the program, centered on something many considered child’s play.

“We began to understand that drone technology was going to revolutionize everything we do,” Benhart said. “So, with this program, we’re trying to reach the intersection of what you love to do and what you can get paid to do.”

Gallery

Students in IUP’s Unmanned Aerial Systems certificate program have worked on projects that both enhance their skills with drones and help the community. Here are some images they collected during these mapping projects:

This drone footage of Co-op Park takes the viewer down the slopes to the lodge facilities and above the woods.

Confluence Park will be developed just south of the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex. This drone footage explores the park site, starting at the field south of Miller Stadium and heading south to Rose Street.

Drone footage of the Hilton Garden Inn and the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.

Students took this drone footage of the URBN distribution center at Windy Ridge Business and Technology Park in White Township. The facility is near the intersection of Route 422 (in the background) and Route 286.

Sutton Hall’s bell tower seemed a stone’s throw away in this drone footage.

Aerial photo of First and Water Street

Students are getting practical experience with drones by helping Indiana Borough with its efforts to mitigate flooding. They used drones to observe water flow into and out of a stormwater retention pond at First and Water streets in Indiana.

Unmanned Aerial Systems certificate program participants also created a 3-D model of Sutton based on perpendicular and oblique aerial photos and X, Y, Z coordinates collected during a drone flight. View the Sutton Hall 3-D model. After the DroneDeploy software opens, select the Model button near the top left. Once the building is complete, you can rotate the model to view it from different angles.