KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University is off to a flying start as one of a limited number of accredited U.S. institutions offering stand-alone academic programs focused on the compact instruments small unmanned aerial vehicles can carry.
The University began offering two UAV-related graduate certificates in May. One program delves into the geological and environmental sciences applications of these drones. The other covers their geospatial applications, and both programs pave the way for students to become certified as remote sUAS pilots--pilots who remotely operate small unmanned aerial systems.
In addition, WMU is poised to take possession of a very low frequency electromagnetic sensor system built for the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences that will make it just the second organization in the world to have a consumer drone outfitted with such a VLF ystem.
Those two developments come on the heels of the University's introduction of a UAV-related consulting service earlier this spring and years of faculty involvement in a wide range of research and teaching activities that capitalize on the versatility of consumer drones--small UAVs that in this country are limited to a total weight of 55 pounds.
Reaching for the sky
The new graduate certificates being offered were established by the departments of Aviation Sciences, Geological and Environmental Sciences, and Geography in partnership with the Extended University Programs office. As part of their creation, additional drones have been purchased and one new faculty member with specific expertise in UAVs, and their applications was hired in each of the three participating departments.
WMU began exploring the viability of offering UAV-related programs in 2016 and subsequently formed a UAV Working Group. Dr. Edwin Martini, Extended University Programs associate provost, says a market analysis his office conducted found that UAV-related programs have both pros and cons.
"There's significant student interest in them, but not necessarily in long-term programs such as majors and minors," he says as an example. "In addition, industry partners indicate there's a strong and growing demand for UAV-related expertise, but few job postings list specific requirements for their preferred types of skills or credentials."
After considerable study, Martini says the working group concluded that WMU should move forward with offering stand-alone academic programs that are in the form of graduate certificates.
"That type of program can be stackable and scalable, growing and adapting with a fluid and rapidly evolving market," he notes. "At the same time, these programs will strengthen our existing areas of research and position WMU at the forefront of applied UAV research."
Four experienced faculty members teach the majority of certificate classes: Drs. Mohamed Sultan and Mine Dogan for the geological and environmental sciences department and Drs. Charles Jay Emerson and Adam Mathews for the geography department.
Dogan, who specializes in environmental geophysics, is responsible for bringing the new drone-mounted electromagnetic sensor system to the University. She joined WMU's faculty last year in part to help teach her department's certificate classes and paid for the sensor system to be downsized to fit on a drone by expending almost half of the funds she received for setting up her research lab.
Her sensor is based on the same VLF technology that land-based facilities employ to send messages to submarines and that has been carried on aircraft for decades to map high-conductivity discontinuities in geological material.
"The problem is that a plane or helicopter has to fly at high altitudes and fast speeds. So you cannot get the resolution necessary for dealing with environmental problems," Dogan says. "Having these geophysical probes on a drone platform has two big advantages in addition to the cost savings. One, you can increase the resolution by lowering your speed. Two, you can be close to ground, so that will give you much better signal quality. And we have all the control. If we think that there is something interesting in some part of our data, we can go back and recollect the data set, increase our resolution or do whatever we want."
Electromagnetic sensors can detect both structural and geological discontinuities, such as pipelines, groundwater flow paths, and shallow metallic minerals and ores. And they can point to places where contaminants are reducing the conductivity of subsurface material. The latter capability will allow WMU to use its sensor to research a variety of groundwater pollution issues, including those posed by landfills and PFAS--per- and polyfluoroalkyl--substances.
"With the issues related to PFAS and other underground water contamination popping up around Michigan, it is going to be a great tool for us to have in the state," Dogan says of the sensor system. "Meanwhile, I'm going to use this tool for teaching our certificate-program students how to collect and process geophysical data."
Down-to-earth job skills
Sultan, an internationally known researcher, is focusing his certificate teaching on remote sensing instruments that primarily examine the Earth's surface. He chairs the geological and environmental sciences department and heads its Earth Sciences Remote Sensing Lab. Sultan's and Dogan's teaching efforts complement one another and add to the marketability of graduates.
"All of our graduate students have offers and get good jobs, whether they're going into academia, into industry or going to work for the government. We're very good in that. Our ultimate goal is research and also training our students and making them competitive," Sultan says. "Now, we're providing hands-on experience using drones for geophysical and remote sensing applications. Other students coming out of other geology departments will not have the opportunities that Dr. Dogan is providing by having one of only two instruments in the world or the opportunities that the Earth Sciences Remote Sensing Lab provides for collecting and analyzing geological and environmental data we can collect with drones."
Geography Professor Emerson also emphasizes the enhanced skills students will acquire by completing his department's certificate courses. He reports that both he and co-teacher Mathews have worked with drones for years and the mix of online and face-to-face instruction in their certificate courses should be attractive to a variety of working professionals as well as WMU students.
One of the University's newly minted UAV consultants, Emerson notes that geographers are in demand by governmental planning departments and environmental agencies, private-sector engineering firms, and public utilities. Drones bring a new dimension to data collection for employees in these positions as well as for a growing list of industries, especially construction, agriculture and insurance.
"The bigger drones cost a little more but they're stable and GPS-enabled, so they can fly a preprogrammed flight path for more precise data collection," Emerson says. "That precision makes them ideal for carrying instruments that can be used to create high-resolution maps and 3D models of both land and structures."
Graduate certificate details
Both of WMU's UAV-related certificate programs require nine-credit hours of classes and feature a combination of online, face-to-face and hybrid--online and face-to-face--instruction. They are open to anyone with a bachelor's degree. Students may enroll in either program at any point in the year.
The Certificate Program in UAVs Applications in Geological and Environmental Sciences gives students a comprehensive understanding of the available geophysical and remote sensing sensors mounted on UAVs, and training on their applications in addressing geological and environmental problems. It consists of four classes, with Dogan and Sultan teaching one each and co-teaching one.
The Certificate Program in Geospatial Applications of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles emphasizes obtaining and analyzing airborne imagery to yield accurate 2D maps of the Earth's surface land cover and vegetation health, and 3D surface models. It consists of three classes, two of which are being taught this year by Emerson.
Only one class is common to both certificates: Unmanned Aerial Systems I. It is taught by a faculty member in WMU's College of Aviation, long lauded as one of the nation's top three aviation schools. The course provides an introduction to unmanned aerial systems, operations, FAA regulations, and the fundamentals of flight and weather, and prepares students for the FAA UAS knowledge examination.
Numerous rules govern where and when drones can take to the air, so learning about flying them is important. Also, only FAA-certified sUAS remote pilots may fly drones for money-making purposes or as part of their teaching, research or other regular work.
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