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Here's The Buzz Surrounding All Of Those Drones Hovering Over Fullerton

Four Fullerton College students and their professor stand around a gray drone in a parking lot.
Fullerton College Professor Jay Seidel guides his students through setting up a $12,000 drone.
(Jackie Orchard
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We’ve all heard the loud buzzing of what sounds like a giant mosquito hovering overhead, only to look up and see what feels like the start of the machine uprising: flying drones.

Here's The Buzz Surrounding All Of Those Drones Hovering Over Fullerton

Drones are in public parks, on nature hikes, and sometimes seen whizzing around delivering packages or grabbing aerial footage for companies that can afford it. But just how common are drones becoming? What is our future with these creepy little robots?

Fullerton College isn't waiting to find out. The community college campus is training nearly 200 students annually to become certified drone operators. I visited them on a recent afternoon.

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About 10 of the students are gathered in a parking lot near the college's football field as a gigantic drone hovers above me menacingly. (For scale: Has your uncle ever spread his arms wide on Christmas, ready to bear hug you? Not your skinny uncle. The burly one who loves beer. That wingspan — that’s how big this drone is.) The fact that dark clouds are gathering behind it doesn't make it look any less ominous.

One of the students is holding a large video game controller, watching the display screen like a hawk.

“I won’t tell you how much this one costs, so you don’t get nervous,” their professor, Jay Seidel, said. (He told me later: The answer is $12,000.)

One robot with a million applications

Seidel built the drone program at Fullerton College from the ground up. He said most students start with a basic piloting course, where they learn how to fly a drone and get certified to do it.

“We actually have the first registered apprenticeship for drone piloting, and it's federally registered through the Department of Labor,” Seidel said. “Students will actually come, complete a series of classes, earn the certificate, and then do a set amount of paid on-the-job training for a company.”

Nine students pose with their $12,000 drone after class in the parking lot of Fullerton College.
Professor Jay Seidel often brings his drone classes outside for hands-on flying practice in the parking lot of Fullerton College.
(Jackie Orchard

More advanced classes train students in specialties like thermal imaging, LiDAR 3D mapping and scanning, precision agriculture to identify vegetation and crop health, journalism, and cinematography. There are also classes on how to build and repair drones.

Hey, you need a license for that thing

Seidel says 10 years ago, people started buying drones recreationally, and they have no idea you need to be licensed. He said amateur operators break FAA rules all the time.

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“You can only fly to 400 feet. You can't fly over people. You have to keep it in a visual line of sight,” Seidel said, while his own class drone swoops around the parking lot.

Seidel said his students earn a “trust certificate” or can train to take the official FAA license exam. But people need to have one or the other.

A man in a black polo with a drone logo stands behind a small, white drone in a classroom.
Jay Seidel is a journalism professor at Fullerton College who started the drone program with one class, and grew it to its current enrollment of nearly 200 students across multiple courses.
(Jackie Orchard

“Bummer part is most people just don't know they need the certificate,” he said. “They just go to Costco and grab a drone and then check out, and there's nothing that says, ‘Oh, by the way, you need this.’”

As someone who has been on a hiking trail and unexpectedly walked underneath a drone, it would be nice if more people knew that wasn’t allowed. Seidel said basically you can’t fly your drone above people because if the drone falls out of the sky, it is really going to hurt.

But Seidel also said humans shouldn’t shy away from using drones for what they’re best at: getting something somewhere fast.

“Hospitals are using drones for organ transplants, moving organs between hospitals from point to point rather than putting them in vehicles,” Seidel said. “It’s faster. You can get a kidney from one hospital to another and not have to deal with afternoon traffic.”

Seidel said drones are a lucrative, up-and-coming profession. Fullerton College’s drone thermal imaging class is working with UC Irvine’s Cal Plug Program, funded by the Department of Energy, to train students to identify building efficiency with drones. It helps companies cut costs in their energy expenses. Fullerton College also partners with utility companies across California and Seidel said they can’t train students fast enough to meet the demand for companies like Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas and Electric.

“They use drones for utility line inspection,” Seidel said. “Students just go out in the middle of nowhere and fly drones along the lines, and the cameras have such a high resolution that they can identify if there's a cotter pin missing or if they need to send a linesman up to fix something.”

Your first responder could be a drone

Also in the parking lot, looking up in wonder at the flying drone, is Daniel Lopez Del Rio. He is an emergency response drone operator and has flown drones for the Redondo, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica police departments. He tells me that in California, you could call 911 and the first responder to arrive could be a drone, assessing the situation and reporting back to dispatchers with more details for the humans en route — a big advantage for search-and-rescue operations.

A young man in a black hat and black jacket stands in a parking lot.
Daniel Lopez Del Rio is an emergency response drone operator and has flown drones for Redondo, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica police departments.
(Jackie Orchard

“You would have to have like 20 people, hand in hand, come to an area,” he says. “But now you can deploy one drone with one pilot and cover the same mountain distance in a fraction of the time.”

Drones = faster than people

A drone can’t save a life the way a human first responder can, but it can provide something precious leading up to their arrival: information.

“Information is key because the drone gets there first like 80% of the time,” Lopez Del Rio said. “So when you get there, you're able to determine what response you need to do, what resources you need to allocate. And that just saves so much time and money, because a lot of the time first responders, when they're getting to the situation, they don't know what's going on. They just hear what's going on on the radio, but they don't see it.”

Lopez Del Rio said that with the drone footage, first responders can put together a better picture of what they’re walking into. Oftentimes, a drone can call a situation all clear, without wasting the officer’s time.

“We get to a situation where maybe somebody called in an issue that a homeless person is doing something,” he says. “We get there, we see that they're not doing anything at all, or they're not even affecting anybody, and we're able to clear that situation without having to deploy an officer to the scene.”

Drone entrepreneurs

If being a drone first responder or inspecting power lines isn’t your thing, some students, like 53-year-old Jorge Leandros Tovar, are using drones to launch their own businesses. He's training in the drone program to get his state and federal certification.

Two students stand outside in the sunshine with a suitcase housing drone equipment.
53-year-old Jorge Tovar (right), owner of Tovar Geospatial Services, studies drone mapping at Fullerton College.
(Jackie Orchard

“I'm a government contractor,” Tovar said. “So the certifications will help me be more competitive in the contracting process.”

With a bachelor’s in geography, Tovar returned to school at Fullerton College to specialize in drone mapping and learn how to grow Tovar Geospatial Services. He said he’s learning how to fly and operate drones, but more importantly he’s learning how to use the software and apply it to his field. Along the way, he’s also having a pretty good time.

“It's a lot of fun. It's exciting,” Tovar said. “You learn something new every day.”

Seidel has been watching the growth of the drone industry for decades, and he said they’re only going to become more prevalent.

“Businesses are really looking at how drones can be used to work smarter and not harder. They can see efficiency," he said.

Until then, if you’d like a firsthand taste of this futuristic sci-fi, you can find more information about training these mechanical gofers here.

What questions do you have about local community colleges?
Community colleges act as a gateway for first-generation students and adults seeking a second start. LAist reporter Jackie Orchard wants students — and those who support them — to have the information they need to thrive in the California Community College system.

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