Developing a Drone Program or Course at Your Institution

June 10, 2020

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Several years ago, my department had a little extra disposal money to spend. They offered it to me, so I purchased a drone. It was a DJI Phantom 3 Advanced drone that could take up to 2.7K videos. At the time, the drone was not cheap (over $2000), but as a geography professor, I thought the applications were many (Dare I say, “Limitless?”) and the drone would enhance both teaching and learning.

I would periodically take the Phantom out for students to take images of buildings, rooftops, and landscapes for a variety of mapping and/or maintenance projects. The college maintenance team knew that we had a drone, and would contact me to help them complete various campus projects, such as rooftop inspection.

We didn’t have a drone program back then, but industries such as mapping, surveying, inspections, search and rescue, photography, cinematography, and others were beginning to lean heavily on Unmanned Aircraft Systems as a tool, and a new, stand-alone UAS industry, both for drone applications and drone development, was beginning to evolve. The FAA recognized this, and started to develop a plan to get commercial drone pilots licensed (i.e., the Part 107 exam).

At that point, it made sense for us to begin the process of developing a program in UAS in order to meet the needs of our students and community.  

Developing a drone program is not quite the same as developing a program in GIS. There are cost issues, liability issues, and general regulations that are unique to UAS. The following steps were the chronology we used to develop our drone program in UAS Technology and Applications at Southwestern College.

Curriculum Development

 Curriculum development is key to any successful program. Although it is paramount to develop a program that meets the needs of your region, for UAS, there are a number of fundamental FAA elements that any program must include, such as: rules and regulations, airspace, weather, crew resources, emergency procedures, and drone maintenance. Beyond that, it is advisable to either conduct a Developing a Curriculum process, do research to see if a DACUM has already been conducted for your region, contact other institutions of higher education in your region that offer a drone course, or contact local industry directly, and perhaps offer them a short survey to complete. A DACUM is most advisable, as it is a process that incorporates the use of a focus group in a facilitated storyboarding process to capture the major duties and related tasks included in an occupation, as well as the necessary knowledge, skills, and traits. Generally speaking, the members of the focus group will include industry representatives. Ultimately, your DACUM will be a direct snapshot of industry needs, and subsequently help to make your curriculum that much more relevant to the needs of your community.

In order to begin our curriculum development process, we conducted a DACUM in partnership with the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (the GeoTech Center) and Palomar College. In addition, Palomar College, who already had a thriving UAS program, shared their curriculum and program design. As a result of the DACUM, our collaboration with Palomar College, and some additional research, we developed a UAS program consisting of the following elements:

  1. A “Ground School” course to help students prepare to pass the FAA Part 107 Exam
  2. A core course, which focuses on flying, data collection, and data processing
  3. A remote sensing course
  4. A GIS course
  5. A business course — as we assume many students will seek to start their own drone data collection business
  6. An elective choice drawn from a rather large list of courses to meet the needs of the individual’s primary subject of interest, including “Inspection,” “Fire Science,” “Image Analysis,” “Photography,” “Videography,” “Journalism,” and many others).

We offer two certificate tracks:

  • Track 1, Certificate of Proficiency. Requirements (8 Units): Elements 1, 2, and 6 from the list above. Track 1 can be completed in one semester. This certificate is designed to introduce students from a variety of disciplines to drone applications for their respective field of study.
  • Track 2, Certificate of Achievement. Requirements (17 Units): All of the elements listed above. Track 2 can be completed in one to two semesters. This certificate is designed to introduce students to drone applications for their respective field of study with a greater emphasis on remote sensing and mapping; to seek employment within the drone industry; or to create their own drone business.

Once we developed our curriculum, we submitted it to our campus curriculum committee for approval. NOTE: Expect around a year turnaround from course/program proposal to your course catalog.

Hardware and Software Purchases

 Equipment costs for a drone program are not trivial, and must be considered when seeking to start a UAS program. Costs will include drones, sensors, additional batteries, tablets, and software. Although the drones themselves are similar in the way they fly, regardless of company, it’s not a bad idea to have different drones for students to fly in order to gain more experience. For example, at Southwestern College, we will have students begin their flight training with smaller drones such as a DJI Spark, and then have them move up to more professional grade drones such as a DJI Inspire 2 or DJI Matrice 600.

Our coursework not only includes photography and videography, but we will also introduce students to thermal imagery and vegetation analysis (i.e., using near infrared and red edge sensors). These additional sensors are additional costs. The costs must also include any adapter you need to attach to the drone. Finally, in order to process imagery (for example, if you wanted to take a number of images and piece them together to make an orthomosaic), you will need software to stitch the images together, as well as software to map the images, such as Esri ArcGIS Pro. These are all additional costs.

So, what is a ballpark example? The following numbers include educator discounts and are designed for a more extensive drone data collection and processing program. If you are designing a course for photography and videography only, you most likely will not need the expensive sensors or the GIS software. Pix4D Mapper might be useful, but you might be more inclined to purchase Photoshop, Premiere Pro, Final Cut, and other photography/videography software products.

·        Drone with 4k camera ~ $1,500, although you can purchase smaller, less expensive drones, such as the DJI Mavic Mini for $300, which also comes with a nice camera set-up and is incredibly compact. Keep in mind, this smaller drone is great for learning how to fly and for taking imagery, but you won’t be able to change its sensor, thereby limiting your deliverables. However, for a new course that focuses on photography and videography, this is a great option.

  • Extra batteries ~ $75 to $150 each
  • Tablet, such as an iPad Mini ~ $400
  • Radiometric Thermal Sensor ~ $3,000
  •  Multispectral Sensor ~ $5,000 to $10,000
  • Software, such as Pix4D Mapper ~ $6,700 for a lab license, a 1-time charge for 25 seats
  • Software for mapping, such as ArcGIS Pro ~ $10 per seat (an annual charge, with 50 seats minimum)
  • Adobe Creative Cloud, which includes Photoshop and Premiere Pro ~ $240 (an annual charge with unlimited seats)

Clearly, the costs are not for the faint of heart! At Southwestern College, we used a combination of Perkins funding, Strong Workforce funding, and National Science Foundation grants to fund our program. Unless your institution has a large budget set aside for your program, it will take some legwork on your part to make your program viable.

Campus Liability, Notification and Registration

Liability is going to be a concern when flying drones on campus. Although drone flying is in its infancy, many campuses will have blanket liability coverage that includes drones. Contact your CFO to find out. If the campus does not include drones in its blanket coverage, they can be added. In addition, at Southwestern College, we like to notify campus police of our flying schedule. Nevertheless, be prepared to answer questions on your flying days, both from campus police and students walking by. Invest in yellow vests, as you will look more official.

As far as registration goes, you will want to register your drones with the FAA. This is important, especially if a drone is lost. With the FAA, you have two choices for registration: You can register each drone, individually, under a Part 107 registration ($5 for each drone), or you can register all of your drones under a “recreational flyers” registration ($5 total). As educators, either registration will suffice. Drone registration can be completed at the following site:

 Campus and Community Outreach

It is important that your campus administrators (including your dean, the campus president, and the VP of Academic Affairs) have buy-in to your drone program. You will need their confidence and flexibility in order to be successful. In addition, introducing your program to other program faculty across campus, especially in fields that are beginning to use drones, such as GIS, Photography, Inspection, Fire Science, Agriculture, etc., is extremely helpful. At Southwestern College, we reached out to faculty in these and other areas in order to add practical electives to the drone program. We also offered professional development training opportunities for faculty in these other fields, so that they were better prepared to advertise our drone program to their students.

As part of the Southwestern College/Palomar College NSF grant (UASTEP – Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations Technician Education Program), our project evaluator conducted a survey to evaluate the impact of our professional development outreach. The following snippet is from the executive summary of the evaluation:

Impact on Non-UAS Programs, Faculty, and Students: Interviews were conducted with the instructors of the Small Business Entrepreneurship and Introduction to Remote Sensing and Drone Data Analysis courses. Overall, the faculty reported that they felt positive about their involvement in the grant. Both faculty members gained knowledge through the process of incorporating drones and drone imagery into their courses. For the faculty member new to drones and drone imagery, there was a period of study required to learn the drone material; he felt well supported during this process. For the faculty member familiar with the material, she gained knowledge in the applications of drones. Both faculty members reported high levels of student engagement with the material. Both faculty members plan to continue to offer the courses with drone material and recommend other faculty members add drone material to their courses as well.

 In addition to on-campus outreach, it is advisable to have community outreach. Our local high school district offers an annual drone challenge, which UASTEP sponsors and in which it participates as a mentor and judge. Students who participate in the drone challenge are also required to take Southwestern College’s “Drone Applications and Safety” free Massively Open Online Course. The MOOC is open to the general public and serves as a nice gateway to the program.


UAS use is growing, is becoming an ever-present tool across a variety of industries, and is even fostering its own industry. To serve our respective communities, faculty at community colleges, especially, should consider doing research on local workforce needs in terms of drone applications. There are certainly obstacles to creating drone course(s), not the least of which is funding. But if you can find the resources, and if you have campus buy-in, then you will ultimately be successful in offering quality UAS course(s) and possibly a program.

This project is supported by the National Science Foundation DUE #1700552. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the National Science Foundation. For additional information, please visit and


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