Microcertificate Prepares Graduates for Leading Edge Advanced Air Mobility Careers

October 19, 2023

Richard Ham
Richard Ham

With a career that spans more than four decades, the University of Arkansas’ Richard Ham describes himself as “a retirement failure.” After a few attempts at retiring, in August 2014 he came back to his alma mater to take on his current role as associate director of the Master of Science in Engineering Management and Master of Science in Operations Management programs. Ham is a recognized expert in all things related to unmanned aerial systems and advanced air mobility, commonly known as drones.

Ham, who earned his Ed.D. in higher education/higher education administration at the U of A in 2005, served in the Air Force as commander, instructor supervisor and air traffic control officer. He was going to retire but his plan was delayed by 9/11. The seasoned transportation executive with 37 years of experience in security, safety operations, program administration, compliance and enforcement brings his expertise to the classroom.

In 2017, Ham developed a four-course graduate certificate in Homeland Security to help those working in the security industry gain credentials. Coursework in this certificate program follows the Certified Protection Professional (CPP) body of knowledge requirements of the American Society of Industry Security (ASIS). In Summer 2022, two-course mirocertificates were added to the program offerings that are designed to help students earn credentials faster and boost their resume, one of which is in Advanced Air Mobility Autonomous Operations. This microcertificate feeds into the Homeland Security certificate and then if the student chooses, can continue on to pursue their master of science degree, either in operations management or engineering management. In less than a year, this microcertificate has received the stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Association College Training Initiative as a higher education institution that offers training on drone operations compliance. Only about a dozen colleges and universities have this prestigious FAA CTI certification, which prepares graduates for diverse careers that rely on the use of drones.

The FAA CTI certification means that students have “the assurance the FAA has looked at the coursework and training programs we have provided, and validates we are meeting the standards necessary for students to achieve the FAA Part 107 Certificate for safety and risk management,” Ham says.



Online Degree Programs offered in the Department of Industrial Engineering

The most common question asked about these programs is, “What is the difference between operations management and engineering management?”

Engineering management is a field that bridges engineering and business management. This field primarily deals with managing engineering processes, projects and teams. It combines technical and managerial skills to oversee engineering projects, product development and innovation within an organization.

Operations management is a broader field that applies to those with diverse work experience. This field deals with the design, control and improvement of processes and systems to produce goods and services.

Ham says several disciplines benefit from using new drone technologies, and there is a strong tie-in between operator proficiency and well-established industrial engineering principles.

Drones are used in a wide variety of fields, and proficiency using the software controlling these devices is key to succeeding as an operator of unmanned aerial systems. In operations management, unmanned aerial devices are essential to the life cycle of how things work in business, from supply chain to delivering goods. Drones are extensively used in warehouses to inspect, read bar codes and track inventory.

Drones used in agriculture help growers predict problems and spot-spray plants for rust or fungus in a small area before disease spreads. Security and law enforcement professionals use drones to zero in on license plate numbers and to identify individuals via facial recognition. Engineers and architects rely on them to inspect bridges and track progress on construction projects.


Drones Ideal for Dirty, Dangerous, Dull Jobs — and Cost Savings

“Drones are perfect for jobs that are dirty, dangerous or dull,” says Ham. “Dangerous and dirty includes work involving hazardous chemicals or heights, such as those who are required to wear a hazmat suit or to climb a 9,800-foot-high cell tower. Dull jobs might track the comings and goings of delivery trucks or involve taking inventory on a clipboard. Drones can do many jobs autonomously and require very little human monitoring.”

The use of drones has grown dramatically in a short time, Ham notes, and industries rely on them for cost savings and efficiency in addition to safety considerations. Three large construction projects on the U of A campus, for example, are using drones to build new facilities and track progress.

“One of our campus buildings had a compromised roof,” Ham says. “When we wanted to get bids, contractors were concerned about getting on top of the building to prepare their bids. It might have cost thousands of dollars to get up there, and the process could have taken three or four days, but a drone provided a high-resolution picture — and it took 30 minutes to get it.”

The U of A’s Old Main, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, needed repairs using the original type of wood. Prior to work commencing, scaffolding on the five-story building would have been erected, and inspections might have taken weeks. A graduate of the program used a drone for a three-hour inspection and prepared a bid from his company.

One student built indoor and outdoor 3-D models to do simulations and developed an entire business doing forensic recreations of accidents for attorneys and law enforcement officers. He now has five people working for him, Ham relates.

“Drones are used not only to document but also to manage projects,” Ham adds. “For instance, a rancher used one to predict when he needed to buy more hay. Another project measured the volume of gravel in a quarry and, within 15 minutes, documented how much gravel was left for dump truck loads. Every time I think I’ve seen all the use cases, a student or someone in the industry will come up with a new project or ask us for something new.”

The use of helicopters or small aircraft for inspections of high-line electrical wires, for example, is receding in favor of using drones. It’s quicker and safer to use a drone versus the danger of trying to fly slowly at 500 feet to obtain information, Ham explains.


Jobs in Advanced Air Mobility Are Diverse and Exciting

A variety of careers are open to graduates of the U of A online  microcertificate program, including UAS drone pilot, remote operator, remote inspector and more.

Salaries for graduates can range widely, and Ham points out that the ability to effectively fly and program more sophisticated drones is one factor in earning higher salaries. “All kinds of undergraduate disciplines come into this field.”

Entry-level positions, Ham notes, start between $40,000 and $50,000 and can go well above six figures. The wide range is based on the complexity and type of drone being used. The more expensive the drone is, the more money an operator can make, he explains. Drones range in price from $5,000 to more than $200,000. Entry-level drones cost between $600-700, and the average drone with actual utility costs about $1,800-2,000. The more expensive sensors and software also require a subscription fee.

Ham delights in seeing his students “catch the bug” and go on to become successful in their careers using drones. “Many come to this microcertificate program because they love to fly. Some are doing it for a business slant; others are hobbyists with a little experience.”


Complicated Drones Require Education to Fly Them

The safety regulations and FAA rules compliance are the entry points of the skills and competencies students must master. But, Ham says, “It’s not just flying. The software is complicated, and students need to learn how to program it, how to use it, and they need to fly it manually, especially with very large drones.

“Though a good number of drones are hands-off — you can hit a button, it flies its mission and returns — if it’s programmed incorrectly, it will crash,” Ham explains. “Students master compliance and safety, deciding which sensors (thermal, lighting, etc.) are right for the mission and how to use the software to create a flight plan and process the data collected.”

Ham emphasizes that U of A online courses are not solely about drones, but about integrating them with the rest of piloted aviation and other modes of transportation. It goes beyond just keeping airplanes and drones from running into each other, he emphasizes.

With several manufacturers in the aerospace industry located in Northwest Arkansas, Ham says, “one of our goals for the area is to be at the center of what’s going on in advanced air mobility, and there’s no doubt this technology will grow. There is a great deal of research now about the integration of drones into the national airspace.”

“The autonomy of unmanned aerial systems for a wide variety of functions is what makes their usage unique,” says Ham. “One of the biggest challenges we’ll see is the ability of the regulatory schemes from the FAA and others to keep up with technology changes. ROI depends upon flying over people and beyond the line of sight, so certification will be critical over the next few years.”

Other challenges related to cybersecurity and personal privacy also lie ahead, he adds.

“There are many complexities from technical, regulatory, business and risk standpoints, and the interdisciplinary nature of drone usage,” Ham says. “Many people must be involved to come up with solutions that won’t strangle industry yet provide as much security as possible.”

To learn more about all the programs offered in the Department of Industrial Engineering, visit the programs page HERE.

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Graduate Microcertificate in Advanced Air Mobility and Autonomous Operations

The 6-credit hour Graduate Microcertificate in Advanced Air Mobility Autonomous Operations is open to any student with an accredited bachelor’s degree. Students will gain the specialized knowledge and skills obtained in FAA Remote Pilot certification.

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