New drone lab takes flight at CMU

Partnership creates real-world opportunities for students in various programs

| Author: Heather Smith

As he watched a small aerial drone automatically circle a tree, hover in gusty winds and even follow wherever he walked, Justin Lyle couldn't contain his delight.

The senior from Dowagiac, Michigan, studying broadcast and cinematic arts in the Honors Program, is among the first of many students benefiting from Michigan's only multidisciplinary Drone Lab, a new addition to Central Michigan University.

Lyle, who sees creative videography in his future, said a CMU course this summer placed him at the controls of a remote-operated aircraft for the first time. He now plans to pursue FAA drone pilot certification.

"I definitely fell in love," he said. "Being able to say I'm a licensed pilot will open a lot of doors."

Drones represent huge and growing career opportunities. According to Fortune Business Insights, the worldwide commercial market for drones is growing by 25% a year, from $1.6 billion in 2019 to an expected $8.5 billion by 2027. Drones are used in agriculture, surveying, construction, warehousing, logistics, the arts and more.

The CMU lab currently consists of two one-credit courses offered through the School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts. Students in the initial Drone Lab courses this summer plan careers in fields including broadcasting, filmmaking, meteorology and business.

The lab is a program, not a place — because the hands-on learning involved in flying them can take place almost anywhere, indoors and out.

"The 'facility' is the drones and wherever we bring the drones," said BCA Chair Heather Polinsky. She planned the lab along with CMU alum Zach Huffman, founder of Atlanta-based drone service provider Hyvion, as part of a grant proposal for the CMU President's and Provost's Fund for Program Innovation and Excellence.

The grant purchased a fleet of 35 drones for the lab, ranging from beginner models to a $10,000 craft that Huffman said exceeds industry standards.

CMU and Hyvion are partners in the project. Huffman taught the initial courses, and students who complete the program will have the opportunity to join Hyvion as interns or as part of the company's nationwide network of 200-300 drone pilots.

The first Drone Lab course prepares students for Federal Aviation Administration drone pilot certification. Students in the second course learn hands-on how to program and fly drones. The next round of classes will be offered in spring 2022. BCA faculty and staff will operate the CMU Drone Lab and teach future courses.

Reflecting the almost limitless uses for drone technology, three CMU colleges — Arts and Media, Business Administration, and Science and Engineering — are involved in the project.

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