Emmanuel Christian’s drone, aviation program grows to include 5 Ohio schools

The dual drone and aviation program at Emmanuel Christian Academy has “grown significantly” over the last six years since it started and is now in five Ohio schools, including four local districts.

The school partnered with the Gaetz Aerospace Institute (GAI) at Embry‐Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 2018 to offer the intro high school level aviation STEM course to 22 of its students.

That year, the private school started an introductory course that taught students about unmanned systems, including those related to aviation such as drones, and underwater and ground systems. They were the only school in Ohio at the time where students could learn about drones while getting both high school and college credit for doing it.

Shadh Molla, the new professor of the Emmanuel Christian Academy Aerospace Institute, said the program has been “very popular,” with other schools taking interest in it over the years. It has now expanded to include Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center (CTC), Global Impact STEM Academy (GISA), Northwestern High School and Midview High School in Grafton near Cleveland. Several other schools have expressed interest in learning more about the program.

“It’s been very, very popular,” Molla said. “The current year-to-date enrollment that have gone through the program is a little over 100. The projected enrollment for all the schools just next year is an additional 200, so the numbers are rapidly increasing.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Col. Bernie Willis, who is now a state representative and was an Air Force pilot, was instrumental in spearheading the expansion of the Florida program into Ohio, Molla said. They received a grant from the state to fund the program, including startup costs and expansion.

“Because of the success of the program, a lot of students were interested in it. It’s actually a lot of fun, too,” Molla said. “It’s not just academics, but we get to go out and we fly drones. Once you go through the program, you will have earned not only college credit at Embry-Riddle, but also the FAA license to fly drones commercially.”

The courses allow students to study and prepare for the FAA Part 107 test to get a pilot’s license to be certified to fly unmanned drones. Beyond that, students are earning other course credits related to aviation, so the program is not exclusively about drones. Molla said students can earn between 8 and 16 college credit hours, which is essentially a full semester of classes at Embry-Riddle.

As for the students in the program, Molla said they have one graduate from Emmanuel that went to Embry-Riddle and got her master’s degree in aviation. Several students want to go to Embry-Riddle to become commercial airline pilots, one who wants to do aircraft engineering, and another who is interested in aviation programming.

“It doesn’t have to be drones centered,” Molla said.

After Willis helped start the program, he became a state representative so his position with the program needed to be replaced because he couldn’t have two state jobs at the same time.

During that period, Molla said Emmanuel Christian’s numbers actually dropped because they had to pause classes until they found a replacement, and he was hired in June. He has a background in Air Force in the space command, and an education background as he was a science teacher at Springfield Christian for seven years, and he currently teaches the program as well as algebra and geometry at Emmanuel Christian.

“Now, we’re starting to slowly ramp back up. But in the interim, however, some of the other schools have started the program and are doing very well,” he said.

Molla said the program has been especially popular at CTC because it’s a technical college with a lot of kids learning a trade.

“CTC in particular, they sound like they might actually have to turn away students from the program next year because they’re looking at 90, almost 100 students that are interested,” he said.

The drone business is “rapidly expanding,” Molla said, and there are many jobs that are opening.

“The projections for expansion of the drone business and for the jobs that come with that are slated to grow about 13% every year, so we’re talking about 150,000 jobs every year that are opening for drone pilots,” he said.

Molla said he was surprised at how creative some of the companies are with using drones, including aerial photography, real estate companies, working for the government, weather research, construction companies for inspections, inspecting bridges, taking inventory, agriculture to fly over farmland to see what areas need water, which are healthy or need more nutrients, search and rescues, law enforcement and more.

The average salary is about $75,000 a year, with a starting range from $50,000 to $100,000, depending on what field you go into, your experience and what aircraft you’re flying, Molla said.

“Becoming a drone pilot is actually a very lucrative one,” he said. “It’s a very attractive opportunity for a lot of kids, (including) at CTC that are looking to earn a trade that essentially (didn’t) want to necessarily go through four years of college, but they can walk out of this program with the license to get a job at these places and fly drones.”

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Along with the program expansion, Molla said they want to expand the funding to include all of aviation. He said when they initially wrote the agreement, the purpose of the funds was to further the drone program. When they write their next grant request, they are going to use a more general language to say aviation.

Molla said, for example, Northwestern has a certified flight instructor, so their goal is eventually to be able to take the students to the airport, rent an aircraft and fly.

“That’s not a drone thing, and so one of the goals of the program is to expand the focus to aviation in general, not just drones,” he said.

Because of the success of the program, a meeting to give an update on the Ohio drone program will be held on Wednesday, May 8. The meeting will include leadership from Embry-Riddle’s Gaetz Aerospace Institute, state representatives, officials and administration from local schools in the area and others not a part of the program that are interested in getting more information.

“We’re really excited for the kids and for the expansion of the program,” Molla said.

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