First in Flight: Unmanned Aerial Systems in Hancock County

October 4, 2023

We’ve seen autonomous vehicles emerge over the last decade, but have you ever thought about an autonomous aircraft? Unmanned Aerial Systems or UAS represent a projected $82 billion industry and has the potential to create over 100,000 jobs across the country( In Mississippi alone, the UAS industry can bring over $900 million in investment and create over 1,200 new jobs. ( The military is very familiar with UAS, but these technologies are applicable to every day industries like disaster management, agricultural monitoring, law enforcement and public safety, mapping and data collection, oil and gas exploration, and many more will come as the technology advances.  

The economic growth of the UAS sector will need skilled and trained workforce to push development to the next level. Hancock County Career Technical Center and Pearl River Community College in Hancock County are preparing students to be “first in flight” this Fall with UAS certification and training programs. Graduates of the PRCC program will be well positioned for a career in UAS, with estimated earnings of $60,000- $100,000 annually, earning $30-52 per hour upon graduation. 

To learn more about the training programs, we caught up with Tanner Smith, the UAS program instructor at Hancock County Career Technical Center and Cavin Skidmore, UAS program instructor at Pearl River Community College.  

Why did your schools start a UAS program?  

Tanner Smith: Hancock County Career Technical Center, with the help of numerous local industries, expedited the creation of the Unmanned Aerial Systems Program, which is only the fifth of its kind in the state. We have done so because we have witnessed firsthand the need for UAS in our own backyard with the expansion of Stennis and PRCC with their own unmanned aerial systems program.  Not to mention, the numerous companies that have moved into the area working alongside the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.  

Cavin Skidmore: PRCC started the UAS program in response to an industry demand for unmanned aircraft pilots. Especially in recent years, there has been a growing demand for UAS pilots in various industries on the Gulf Coast and we want to prepare our young people to rise to the occasion with the skills they need.  

What are your backgrounds in this subject?  

Tanner Smith: I have somewhat of an unconventional road to teaching the UAS program. I have a Bachelor Degree in History from USM.  Previously I taught History, mainly US History, at Hancock High School for eight years, before obtaining my Master's Degree in Online Technology and Design from Mississippi College.  While working on my Master's Degree, I moved to the Career Tech Center to take a job teaching computer science, where I became STEM and Computer Science certified.   This move brought together my passion for teaching and my love of technology and electronics. I really enjoyed this move as I could be much more hands-on in learning with my students.  When the idea for the UAS program was floated around to my director at the Career Tech, he asked if I would be interested.   That same day I registered for three different programs, including an Aerial Robotics course through the University of Pennsylvania, and a Fundamentals of Flight Mechanics course through ISAE.  

While I may only be a few months ahead of my students in this first year as far as UAS piloting goes, my strengths of teaching will be showcased in the preflight research and data aspects of UAS and in the postflight data analysis side of the program.  Also, we have a large portion of the course dedicated to autonomous flight, where coding will be a main focus, and this is something I loved teaching in my Computer Science class previously.  

Cavin Skidmore: I had big dreams of becoming a commercial pilot as a kid.  I went to school and studied Aviation Maintenance and Technology while taking flying lessons on the side.  I graduated at Hinds Community College with an FAA Airframe and Powerplant License along with a Private Pilot Certificate with an Instrument Rating.  After graduation, I was immediately pulled into the UAS industry.  I spent a total of 10.5 years in the UAS industry prior to instructing for PRCC.  I have been fortunate in my career to have exposure to a wide variety of UAS technology.  I have worked as a DoD contractor flying large UAS overseas.  I have flown large UAS stateside for Mississippi State University (Raspet).  Lastly, I have worked in the NDT inspection industry using UAS to perform inspections on a wide variety of infrastructure (oil and gas, chemical, utility, etc.). 

What topics do you cover in the program? 

Tanner Smith: The first year of the UAS curriculum focuses on preparing students for their FAA Part 107 Unmanned Pilot's License, which will federally license students as commercial unmanned pilots.  This curriculum consists of numerous safety credentials and tests, learning how to read maps and sectional charts, understanding weather/wind situations, UAS components and flight operations, and flight theory for numerous types of unmanned aircraft.  In year two, students will further explore applied flight, as they learn how to utilize and manipulate the data obtained during flights. Also, students will work to engineer and build their own drones in the workshop.  Throughout the program, students will also be building a flight logbook, tracking all of their flights, safety credentials, projects, and licenses, so that when they leave the program, they are ready to join the workforce and they will have the artifacts to prove just that. 

Cavin Skidmore: Students get exposure with a variety of UAS platforms and sensors.  They learn how to operate each platform in a safe manor in a variety of environments and scenarios.  Not only do they learn how to operate the UAS’s, they learn how to operate the various types of sensors and payloads.  They also learn how to collect, organize, process and deliver data gathered from the various payloads.  Students learn basic troubleshooting and repair techniques.  The program is also very focused on “general aviation” knowledge.  Having this knowledge makes them better pilots and more able to understand all factors that can affect a mission.  These topics include Aviation Weather, Airspace, Human factors, Airport Operations, Basic Aerodynamics and all Federal Aviation Regulations pertaining to Unmanned Aerial Systems.   

What certifications can students expect to gain from the program? 

Tanner Smith: Students become licensed recreational pilots through the FAA in the first few days of class.  By the end of year one, students will have obtained their FAA Part 107 Unmanned Pilot's License.  

Cavin Skidmore: Upon completion of PRCC’s UAS program students will have a CTE Technical Certificate as well as an FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate.  Students also have the option to receive an Associates of Applied Science if they choose to take the core academic classes.  

How many students are you expecting for the Fall course? 

Tanner Smith: 12 total first year students.  9 from Hancock. 2 from Bay High. 1 from Pass Christian. 

Cavin Skidmore: Seven returning sophomores and ten incoming freshmen.  

What is your long-term vision for the program?  

Tanner Smith: The outlook for the program is very bright, as we have already been approached by dozens of companies and government entities showing their support. We know this program is an expensive endeavor for the Career Tech Center and for our school district.  With that being said, continuing to build relationships with industry partners is my top priority for building the program. My personal vision for the UAS Program is more focused on my students and helping create lifelong learners.  Short term, yes, we are looking to license all of our students, have them complete both years of the program, and have the tools and credentials to start their careers in the UAS job force.   But more importantly, I want my students leaving the program wanting more, pursuing other goals sparked by the UAS programs, and ultimately wanting more for themselves, whether this be in the UAS field, engineering, technology, instrumentation, or something totally unrelated.  

Cavin Skidmore: I personally have big dreams for the UAS program.  I would like to seek out more industry partnerships and see the student enrollment double.  Right now, we are limited to instruction with small UAS.  I would like to see the program grow to a point where we can utilize and instruct with large UAS as well.  Between Port Bienville and the Stennis Airport, I believe we have the facilities to make something like that happen.  PRCC also has an awesome Hydrography program with a great instructor.  As growth happens, I could definitely see a partnership and the development of some sort of “Unmanned Institute” facility.  Most importantly, I want PRCC to be recognized as having the leading UAS training program on the Gulf Coast. 

Hancock County has a long and proud reputation in aerospace and aviation fields since the creation of NASA John C. Stennis Space Center as the premier rocket propulsion test center in the United States. With investments into local educational training programs at Hancock County Career Technical Center and Pearl River Community College, Hancock County is poised to continue to be the first in flight in the State of Mississippi and Gulf Coast region.