How CNM Is Training Students to Get Cutting-Edge Jobs in the Drone Industry

Students in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems program learn the skills necessary to get a commercial license that can open up employment opportunities in sectors including construction and law enforcement
March 23, 2021

Last week, students in CNM’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Data Modeling and 3D Visualization class met at the Juan Tabo Cabin in the Sandia foothills to launch a drone that would photograph the historic cabin and surrounding landscape. Combined with photos they’d already taken on the ground, plus information gathered using LiDAR (a kind of imaging tool that uses light beams), the students planned to create a highly detailed, three-dimensional map of the site and surrounding area.

These students were part of the college's two-tier Unmanned Aircraft Systems certificate program and were there to learn the skills necessary to pass the test the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administers to anyone who wants to fly a drone for commercial purposes. Some students were part of the faster 10-credit certificate program that’s principally designed as a test prep track. Others were part of the 27-credit program that offers test prep plus more hands-on UAS experience. 

“All the CNM students who go through the certificate program, regardless of which certificate they choose, have the training necessary to secure their commercial license and then go on to work in a variety of exciting and growing industries,” says Dr. Rick P. Watson, the instructor for the Data Modeling and 3D Visualization class. 

More specifically, Rick says students who graduate and pass the FAA test will have skills that are currently in high demand by industries including construction, public infrastructure, and public safety. In the construction industry, for example, Rick says companies are using drones to scout new sites and create detailed maps that allow them to plan how they’ll clear a new area, plan where they’ll stage materials, and build a logistics schedule. 

Highway departments across the country are now using drones for infrastructure inspections. It used to be that transportation workers had to set up bucket trucks to visually inspect higher portions of bridges, or even repel off the top. Now they can just fly a drone with a high-resolution camera. 

CNM instructor John Beltran flies the drone to get images that will be used to map the Juan Tabo cabin and surrounding site.

Public safety workers—including the police and firefighters—regularly fly drones to gain new perspectives. Drones often replace costly helicopters in police work, and firefighters regularly fly drones with cameras that can help them spot the hottest areas of a fire, both in structures and out in the forest. Search and Rescue teams often use drones during rescues, and CNM is currently involved in the development of a search and rescue beacon that will be dropped by drone.

“UAS have become a new, more effective, and often less expensive way for all these industries to gather timely and important data,” Rick says. 

With all the data they’ve gathered at the Juan Tabo site, students at CNM plan to use a process called photogrammetry—or the science of creating measurements from photos—to create their rendering of the cabin, which is over 100 years old. They’re also hoping to use the drone’s visual data to spot the remnants of Civilian Conservation Corps winter camps that were built in the same area but have long since eroded. Once the students are done, they’ll hand all their maps and data over the Forest Service, which can use that information to help preserve the site. 

“Each term we offer this class, we pick a new site for the students to survey,” Rick says. “We’re always trying to find sites that will give students the best hands-on experience as possible, but we also like to work with the community to provide useful data that can help us better understand and preserve the structures in the great Albuquerque area.”

Learn more about the UAS certificates here.

Students gather photos of the Juan Tabo cabin from the ground.