FAA grant helps CSU Drone Center introduce Colorado youth to aviation

A young woman operates a drone as an instructor looks on. Background shows blue skies, foothills, and an empty airfield runway.
A young pilot takes the controls of a UAV under the instruction of CSU Drone Center Director Christopher Robertson

The CSU Drone Center will introduce high school students and teachers from across Colorado to the exciting career potential of unmanned aircraft, thanks to a $340,000 award from the FAA.

The FAA’s stated purpose for the Aviation Workforce Development grant initiative is to help prepare a more inclusive talent pool and to inspire and recruit the next generation of aviation professionals.

Adam Smith, Assistant Director for the Drone Center, says that his team took that mission to heart.  They envisioned a program that provides innovative instruction, hands-on flight training and testing to prepare students for remote pilot certification . Teachers from participating schools will receive instructor training, curricular materials, and a drone to launch a grassroots Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) training program back home, with ongoing support from the Drone Center.

It’s a comprehensive plan intended as an entry into aviation for any Colorado student with an interest, regardless of means. The team did the detailed work to turn this vision into a thorough — but lean — proposal that includes everything needed to answer the FAA’s call, and to eliminate some the obstacles students might otherwise face when seeking this kind of training and certification.

“There’s nothing extra here, it’s as bare bones and streamlined as we could make it.” Smith said. “We’ve had success doing this already, it’s exactly what we need to make this happen.”

A Broad Introduction to Aviation Careers

Students will get experience with a variety of multi-rotor drones, as well as fixed-wing drones that more closely resemble conventional winged aircraft. They’ll also have an introductory flight in a manned aircraft with the AIMS Community College Flight Training Center, rounding out their aviation experience.

“We’re going to expose them to as many different styles of aircraft as we possibly can, in order to demonstrate the technology and showcase some of the many use cases, which are increasing every day,” Smith said.

Participants will also engage with professional pilots from a variety of backgrounds. Students will get career advice and insight from flight instructors, Flight for Life pilots, military and law enforcement drone pilots, and others in the industry.

Soaring Growth

A drone hovers in front of a group of young men. Foothills and solar panels are visible in the background.
A class watches a drone in flight at the Center’s Christman Airfield location in western Fort Collins

With skyrocketing drone use, it’s hard not to be excited about career opportunities for young UAV pilots.

“We say ‘the sky’s the limit,’ a sort of a tongue-in-cheek pun,” Smith said. “But we’re really excited to be part of the trajectory to see where research and development takes UAV technology.”

Drones have already found uses in remote sensing, geospatial science, real estate, firefighting, law enforcement, defense, infrastructure surveys, and even agriculture.

“There are ag applications in crop and soil monitoring, hydrology and agronomy, among many others. Even a cattle rancher in rural Colorado can use UAV technology to track cows during calving season. Drones save money and time across the board in agriculture.”

Considering the impact drones might have on the future of agriculture – and on the fortunes of the rural communities he hopes to reach with this new program – Smith evokes Colorado State’s original purpose, to bring the benefits of scientific advances to bear on agriculture and commerce throughout Colorado.

“We’re the state’s flagship land grant institution,” he mused. “Who doesn’t want to come to Fort Collins and learn to fly at the base of the foothills?”