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San Juan College drone program students have variety of career options

Instructor says drones are a tool, not a toy

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
Students enrolled in the small unmanned aerial systems programs at San Juan College learn to pilot drones to capture overhead images that can be used in a variety of fields.
  • San Juan College began offering a one-year certification program and a two-year degree program in drones during the fall semester.
  • The college had been offering classes in drone operation for 15 years.
  • Instructor Brian Seavey says the career possibilities for drone operators are wide and varied.

FARMINGTON — While he doesn't deny that learning to operate a drone can be a lot of fun, San Juan College instructor Brian Seavey knows his students have transitioned to seeing the larger picture when they start thinking about how they can use that skill to carve out a living for themselves.

"It migrates from being a toy to something they can make a career out of," Seavey said. "That's exciting and sobering at the same time. We don't think of it as a toy, but a tool."

While the college has been offering classes in drone operation for the past 15 years, this fall marked the first time they were part of a one-year certification program or two-year degree program under the heading of small unmanned aerial systems. And Seavey was pleased to see all three students in the program not only complete their first semester, but pass their remote pilot licensing exam from the Federal Aviation Administration and earn a remote pilot certificate.

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According to a press release from the college, the certificate demonstrates that the pilot understands the regulations, operating requirements and procedures to fly a drone safely.

Brian Seavey

Seavey said the career possibilities for drone operators are wide and varied, ranging from jobs as civilian contractors for the military or the government to the real estate, agriculture, surveying, security, industry, academic and entertainment fields. Government agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service use drone photography to map trails and archaeological sites or track wildlife, he said, while real estate agents often use it to promote their properties.

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One of the more glamorous applications for the skill is shooting video for motion pictures or television, Seavey said. He explained his program already has built a close relationship with San Juan College's digital media arts & design department, headed by Luke Renner, who has helped develop San Juan County into a regular stop for filmmakers.

Seavey said the certification and degree programs are in their infancy now, and enrollment in the programs in the fall likely was hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. But he expects to see more students enroll in the programs in the year ahead, explaining it's a relatively easy sell.

An overhead image of an archaeological site captured by a San Juan College drone pilot.

"It's extremely engaging," he said. "It's hands on, as well as a technical-type program."

Still, it's not for everybody, he said, explaining the technical side of the program does require a degree of maturity. There is a lot of reading, he said, but there is also a great deal of outside-the-classroom activity.

Students begin the program by learning to operate small, basic drones in an indoor setting. Seavey said that approach is done for safety reasons, allowing students to pick up basic operator skills without having to worry about losing control of their vehicle in a boundless setting.

"But they quickly migrate to outdoors," he said, where they operate bigger drones with more advanced cameras.

Those who enroll in the program need not purchase their own drone, as the school has its own equipment, he said, but many students choose to do exactly that.

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"Our students this semester all purchased their own," he said. "That shows their commitment to it, so that's nice."

Earning that FAA certification, as those three students recently did, is a big step in the process of becoming a professional drone operator, he said.

"Some of the biggest things we learn are rules and regulations," he said. " … By doing that, they do learn to be respectful and safe pilot operators."

Anyone interested in enrolling in the small unmanned aerial systems program at San Juan College should call 505-566-3320 or visit sanjuancollege.edu/smallunmannedaerialsystems.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.