Northwest Civil Engineering Technology program looks to future

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SENATOBIA, MS (10/12/2017) These days it seems that drones are everywhere. While they have become inexpensive enough for recreational use, they are also used in a variety of ways, including in commerce, agriculture and surveying. In Tommy Watson's Civil Engineering Technology program at Northwest Mississippi Community College, learning to use drones will help keep his students up to date with the latest technology.

A drone is defined as "an unmanned aircraft or ship guided by remote control or onboard computers."

According to Watson, he discovered drone technology a few years ago, and through studying about them, learned about how drones were being used in mapping, construction and inspection. "We try to keep up with industry. To do that, we have to make our students marketable, by making sure they know the latest technology," Watson said.

He emphasized that Northwest is not starting its own drone program, but is using drones to help students in the classroom. He explained that before information for mapping, construction inspection and biometrics could be obtained through satellite imagery, which by the time it was obtained, was already old and was very expensive. Using drones would afford the opportunity to fly the drone on the site and bring real-time information to a project manager. "I decided it was the next big step and decided to look into it and see what we could do to get it on board here at Northwest," Watson said.

He requested money through the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins IV), which is a principal source of federal funding to states and discretionary grantees for the improvement of secondary and postsecondary career and technical education programs across the nation. He did not find it hard to convince the administration that it was a necessity. "Our dean, David Campbell is a visionary, so it was not a hard pitch to him," Watson said, adding that the administration understands the need for Northwest's students to keep up with industry standards and new technology.

He explained that the drones are used for doing real-time imagery that can be used in the Mapping and Topography classes. "We take the imagery and tie it into a GIS (geographic information systems) solution. The most important thing is that is a real-time, up to date image."

One of the challenges Watson faced was being able to legally justify that they could fly the drones, which ended up in him being certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). "Last year the FAA separated recreational from commercial use of drones. For example, a recreational pilot cannot fly within five miles of an airport without written permission to fly in that airspace. So, if you are in Oxford, you really cannot fly a drone anywhere. I thought it was easiest to go ahead and get my commercial license," Watson said.

He feels comfortable with the idea of his students flying the drones, as they are GPS stabilized and are very safe. "I just have to make sure that they get everything set up correctly, know the ranges they can fly in and what the home point setting is. I am supervising them closely as I am the pilot in command," Watson said.

One of the things he sees for future success in the working world for graduates of his program who are familiar with and have worked with drones is cell tower and construction inspection. "As the industry grows, you are not going to have to fly in the line of sight and jobs are going to become available for people who log flying hours and get certifications. Our strategy is to get our students familiar with drones and what jobs there might be out there. We are not a drone program, but you can learn some fundamentals and all of our curricula fits with using drones," he said.

The Civil Engineering Technology Program at Northwest prepares a person for entry-level positions in civil engineering, surveying and similar technical fields. The curriculum includes boundary and construction surveying, principles of road construction, construction materials testing, mapping, GPS and GIS, computer aided drafting (CAD), building information modeling (BIM), project management and construction practices. The graduate of the program is prepared to work with surveyors, civil engineers or other professionals in the performance of general engineering practices. The program can lead to a civil engineering certificate (29 credit hours) or an Associate of Applied Science (64 credit hours). The program is located on the Senatobia campus.

For more information, contact Watson at 662-562-3364 or email