Droning On

What to expect in Grossmont’s drone program.


Desmond J. Rhea, Managing Editor

On the dirt parking lot next to lot 4A, the instructor of Grossmont’s drone program is shutting the class down due to high wind speeds. But he allows one last student to take control before sending everyone home. 

That student was me. With shaky fingers, I take the controls and take off.

In Class

The drone program has been one of the more interesting highlights for me since I quit my construction job and went back to school. I have my own drone that I have been flying around Spring Valley, Mission Bay and Horsethief Canyon, posting pictures and videos on my social media.

My interest in drones peaked when I attended a Zoom conference about Grossmont’s drone program. It was here that I listened to drone entrepreneurs and former students talk about their success in the field. They also discussed how young the drone industry is, leaving room to grow. After the seminar was over, I was convinced to sign up.

The first half of this class is the lecture with Skip Frederiks, the instructor who will drill you on how to operate drones and to be pilots. Yes, I said pilots, technically. Students will eventually have to schedule a test with the Federal Aviation Administration for a Remote Pilot certificate. 

The school will reimburse students for whatever price they paid for the test as long as they pass the first time. Frankly, it’s all very much like dealing with the DMV… but for flying.

In the Field

Once students become pilots and get to the field, they’ll start flying the classroom’s drones, which are older DJI Phantoms. They’re good drones, but I found them to be a bit difficult to use, so students might want to get their own drone to use in class.

Before flying begins, Frederiks will have students observe their surroundings, taking note of any obstacles, including trees, cars and people. Then pilots will verbally announce they are taking off and begin flying. Frederiks will guide students through basic flying such as dolly shots “forward” and tracking shots “side to side” before moving on to more advanced maneuvers. 

A visual observer will be posted to each pilot to warn the pilot of any hazards as they fly and prevent any accidents like mid-air collisions. If you are an observer, the best advice is to be loud and tell your pilot anything and everything you observe. No one has crashed yet in Frederik’s class, and he said he intends to keep it that way. 

Nearing the end of the course, students will have to take a flight test with Frederiks that will involve everything students have been taught throughout the semester. This will involve listening to his directions while following proper procedures. An emergency event will be simulated that students must be able to work their way out of. 

I passed this test and didn’t stress about it too much, though I had shaky fingers. The most trouble I had was being able to tell what height my drone was without looking at my controls other than that it was easy.

From here students will be given a certificate of completion and encouraged to stay connected on Drone Connects as events will take place to bring students together to socialize and fly their drones. Drone Connects is a social networking hub created by Frederiks to talk about anything drone related and keep in touch with all his students. Anyone can join, but must be let in by the administrator; do keep in mind that it’s not Facebook or Instagram.

Getting In

Beth Orellana, a student in the class, described the program as a “vehicle for people to launch a lucrative career, but it doesn’t fall into your lap…you have to study and practice the skills you learn.”

When applying for the program, please note there are more than a 1,000 students on a waitlist trying to get into this program, with priority given to veterans, Native/Alaskan Americans, unemployed and ex-offenders. I fell into the unemployed category and was accepted. 

If you do end up being one of the few students who gets into Grossmont’s drone program, you’ll go through orientation and choose what time you would prefer to attend class. This class will take half of your day, so if you have responsibilities, the 9 a.m. class might be a better option over the 11 a.m,1 p.m., or 3 p.m. classes. The weather tends to get worse later in the day, and might ruin your experience and time.

Now you might be wondering what drone you should buy. There’s a large selection to choose from price, size and manufacturer. I bought DJI’s Mavic Mini 2 and it has flown perfectly for me without a problem. Many of my fellow students flew one as well. It is lightweight and you don’t have to register it with the FAA, but you might as well anyway. I find it perfect as a first drone and affordable. I paid a little over $600 from Best Buy, which includes a two-year replacement plan using their one-year no interest payment plan. There are also good deals you can find on Drone Connects so check that out.

Follow the Rules

Just know though,the FAA has several rules on any sort of illegal flying, and they should be taken 100-percent seriously. Frederiks shared five big “No’s”:

  1. No flying over 400 feet from ground.
  2. No flying 30 minutes after sunset or before sunrise (unless you get licensed to fly at night).
  3. No flying in national parks.
  4. You must stay within “Line of Sight” of the Drone.
  5.  You must get a waiver to fly-in controlled airspace.

As long as you follow these rules you can film anything the camera can capture, and you should be able to avoid most legal problems. It should also be mentioned that students are not allowed to fly around campus; if you would like to, you need to get permission from the school administration.

The drone program at Grossmont is certainly a possible opportunity. Dipak Kothari, another student of the program, sees it as “a great way to introduce one’s life to a new career path.”

To check out Grossmont’s Drone Technology Program, visit its webpage.If you have any questions on drones, you can reach out to the community of Drone Connects. 

Hopefully I’ll see you in the sky.