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YOU SHOULD KNOE: ULM aviation program working with drones

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Terrance Armstard/ULM Photo Services Terrance Armstard/ULM Photo Services
Terrance Armstard/ULM Photo Services Terrance Armstard/ULM Photo Services

MONROE, La. (KNOE 8 News) - The skies over agricultural land around the ArkLaMiss could soon begin to look like an image out of some science fiction movie.

Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS, is now a concentration within the University of Louisiana-Monroe Aviation Department. Led by Dr. Paul Karlowitz, Associate Professor of Aviation. A group of seven students will become the first in the state to gain clearance by the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, for the use of Drones for commercial use.

"I mention the word drone and they typically don't like that, they associate it with some kind of scary movie or something," said Alex Matherne, who's an Aviation Student at ULM. "But it's nothing like that."

The reality is, these drones don't carry camera's to spy on people, or invade privacy, but instead to monitor and analyze crop health. Each costing several thousand dollars, Karlowitz said a Drone could prove to be a valuable investment for those in the agriculture industry.

"It's a pretty good investment," said Karlowitz. "Ours was $13,000 dollars and then they go up from there, so I just don't know, I think it's whatever the market can bear."

What seems like a hefty price tag for this small UAS could save farmers a lot of money in the long run said Karlowitz.

HOW IT WORKS

The Drone is small and fully programmed and controlled by a laptop computer at the airfield. Karlowitz and his team of students pre-program the drone's flight duration, path, takeoff and landing spot. Once it's in the air, it's just a matter of watching the drone to make sure it's following the path.

A small camera inside the drone can take pictures of everything it passes over. That information is then entered into a computer system, which evaluates every pixel of every picture. This is where farmers can determine which portions of their fields are thriving and which aren't.

Karlowitz believes this could lead to more targeted application of fertilizer and pesticides, resulting in less overall use of the products on the crop.

It's a health savings for consumers and a financial savings for farmers.

"All of the components are buried in the wing, underneath the wing we have auto pilot which is about the size of two 50-cent pieces, for $4000 dollars," said Karlowitz. "That's the heart of the whole system."

FUTURE CAREERS

ULM students like Matherne hope that by expanding their Aviation degrees to include training in UAS, jobs will be created in the next couple of years to catapult them into a successful career.

It's estimated that the jobs created over the next decade in this field, could pay employees a salary between $60,000 and $100,000 dollars.

"I've been taking lessons to get my own private pilot's license and most of the principals, even though we're not actually in the air, they still apply here," said Matherne. "A lot of people can't wait to get out of their math classes but I get to come out here and have fun."

Karlowitz says the projected financial windfall for the state's economy is incredible.

"Economic impact study shows the first two years, they're going to spend about $120 million dollars in this state and create about 1000 jobs once the FAA releases the new rules and opens it up for commercial use," said Karlowitz.

It's a program that will have a clear runway by the FAA by the middle of this year. ULM is among the first wave and will be the first in the state of Louisiana.

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