Kevin Kochersberger led a Virginia Tech team to Malawi in 2017 to demonstrate a novel drone design for medical delivery and diagnostics, flying a Malawi-built EcoSoar at the UNICEF test corridor in Kasungu. What happened next was unexpected: UNICEF wanted to use the aircraft in a drone curriculum that Virginia Tech would develop that covers drone technology, but also prepares students to earn a remote pilot license.

The African Drone and Data Academy has graduated 160 students enrolled in in-person and online programs, and now the coursework has made its way to Blacksburg.

The mechanical engineering technical elective course includes more than flying. In both Africa and Blacksburg, students conduct experiments in flight stability and control that include construction and flight test of reconfigurable gliders. They also perform experiments in propulsion, wireless communications, imaging, and flight control. 

The course also provides the opportunity for a student to walk away with the Trusted Operator Program (TOP) certification from The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of unmanned systems and robotics. This certification identifies proficient drone pilots who have been trained to fly with regard to established safe practices.

Students also earn the FAA remote pilot part 107 license, allowing operators to professionally fly aircraft under 55 pounds. For students who may be interested in doing commercial or professional work with unmanned aerial vehicles, this is a full package of next-level skills.

Kochersberger views the class as a response to the fast-growing sector of drone technology and air mobility. “I’m thrilled to see our students gain these professional certifications while learning drone use and operations. I’m sure they will reflect on this as a fun and valuable component to their degree program.”

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