MAYS LANDING — On the forefront of an emergent industry, Atlantic Cape Community College is rolling out its newest degree program this fall: drones.
Through a $225,000 grant, the associate degree in applied science builds upon an existing certificate program offered by the college and begins to train the workforce necessary to build an aviation hub in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
“There’s only a handful of them right now around the country,” Atlantic Cape professor James Taggart said of the degree program. “We’re kind of distilling it down to a model that another school somewhere could easily replicate. They’re still projecting for it to be close to a $100-billion-a-year U.S. market.”
Taggart helped develop the degree program through the 2018 grant from the National Science Foundation. The college hopes the degree program plays a big role in the emerging industry in South Jersey by training the workforce.
“We know that both counties are interested in developing the aviation economy here in South Jersey and that a selling point to possibly a business to relocate would be that we’ve had students proficient with the safe operation of a drone, understand the type of data being collected and can help determine whether or not its good data,” Taggart said.
With the degree, a student will also earn three certificates, a trend in higher education called stackable credentials.
Atlantic Cape has been following the emergence of the drone industry for several years and rolled out its initial certification program just after the federal regulations were approved in 2016. Since then, 140 students have gone through the community college’s licensing program.
“We anticipated that the rules were coming, we were following along, developing the courses,” Taggart said. “We were already set up and ready to go.”
About a dozen students have signed up for the first class in September.
The program includes courses like Aviation Weather, Aerial Video Production, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance & Repair, and a capstone project. Students will graduate with an associate degree in applied science with a concentration in Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Field Technician and a Federal Aviation Remote Pilot Certificate with a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rating.
“It’s currently being used in a wide variety of industries, real estate, construction, film making, photographer. The job potential and growth is being forecasted as very high, and the drone industry is expected to grow,” said Atlantic Cape spokeswoman Erin Mercer. “We’re going to be on the forefront of the industry and help fill a need for qualified technicians.”
Lauren Moore, executive director of the Atlantic County Economic Alliance (ACEA), said the program couldn’t come at a better time for South Jersey.
“Workforce development is very important to the development of this industry in Atlantic County,” Moore said.
The ACEA recently opened up the first of its planned building at the National Aviation Research and Technology Park (NARTP) in Egg Harbor Township and last month announced it received a $750,000 USEDA i6 Challenge matching grant to create a Smart Airport and Aviation Partnership (SAAP) in southern New Jersey.
NARTP is located next door to the Atlantic City Airport and Federal Aviation Administration’s William J. Hughes Technical Center, home to the 177th Fighter Wing and the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Atlantic City.
“Employers follow employees so an educated workforce is absolutely critical to the development of our aviation technical hub in Atlantic and Cape May counties,” Moore said.
In Cape May County, freeholders have also been pushing for drone industry development, forming one of the earliest drone programs in the country. Last month, the county was the venue for flight tests by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) using drones to deliver emergency supplies to first responders after disasters from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal. In late August, the county will play host to a test from another customer, this time from a base in Upper Township.
Taggart said the development of Atlantic Cape’s degree program included visits with other community colleges around the country that received similar grants to build similar programs, but college officials also met with manufacturers and employers to develop prerequisite skills needed in the industry.
Just who will benefit from a drone degree program is still being determined, Taggart said.
“It’s considered an emerging technology. There’s not any sort of government data on job information,” he said. “What we have at this point is just anecdotal on the types of jobs that students have gotten.”
He said that some students have started their own business while others have found jobs with civil engineering consulting firms or as private contractors for roof inspections.
“They say that the technology is truly disruptive so that it’s changing the ways that a lot of industries work. The rules have only been out for two years, so it’s still emerging,” Taggart said.