Promising class of UAV pilots soar through certification at MSU

Author: Reagan Poston

Kevin Wise flies a drone while Amelia Fox looks on.

Kevin Wise of Scott, a master's student in agriculture concentrating in agricultural engineering technology and business, operates an aircraft while Amelia Fox, assistant clinical professor in the MSU Department of Plant and Soil Sciences provides instruction. In the foreground is the E-flite Apprentice trainer aircraft.  (Photo by Dominique Belcher)

Remote learning has proven to be an unexpected benefit for Mississippi State precision agriculture students completing national certification to pilot unmanned aerial vehicles.

Outcomes from two UAV courses, introduced last year into the curriculum in MSU's Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, have surprised Assistant Clinical Professor Amelia Fox as both were moved to online learning this fall.

In the first of these two split-level classes, Ag Flight Technologies I, future pilots commit to memory the Federal Aviation Administration unmanned flight regulations in hopes of passing the FAA certification test required for all commercial UAV pilots.

"Strangely enough, COVID-19 was actually the catalyst for this course to work with the efficiency it is now. Being required to shift to online classes meant that I've had to adapt to teaching methods I'd never considered before, and the flight simulator we turned to allows me to watch the students' hands as they work through the simulation. I'm able to coach every minute of the movement of their hands. Before, it was hours and hours of broken planes and crashes and bangs, but now, they're smooth sailing," Fox said.

For Fox, the new training method has only served to highlight the quality and commitment of her students.

"Gaining FAA certification to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle requires an abundance of hours, and learning to fly well requires a steadfast commitment," Fox said. "Every student in this class sees the certification as a step toward their future. I have 11 students preparing for the certification and each one of them has in their head how this is valuable to them."

While these students express a broad variety of future career pursuits, including land surveying, vineyard management and even crime scene forensics, each plans to parlay unmanned flight expertise to their various fields.

Sean Carpenter, a senior agricultural engineering, technology and business major from Columbus has plans to make use of the certification as soon as he graduates. He has been offered a job as a land surveyor at a civil engineering, surveying and landscape architecture firm in Georgia.

"I was first introduced to land surveying while studying drafting and design at East Mississippi Community College, but everything I've done since then has been with that career path in mind. I chose MSU because of the land surveying program, and I sought my UAV license because surveying companies are trending toward more drone surveying over traditional field crews," Carpenter said.

"I practice on a simulator every single day, and I try to actually fly several times a week to improve my flight skills," he said. "Learning a skill like this is challenging, but it's rewarding. It is a great opportunity to open up a broad career field, which is still progressing as more drone applications are discovered all the time."

While much of the course work for both classes—including Ag Flight Technologies I and II—were this fall, Fox does take students out in the field for hands-on flying in a socially distanced, safe manner.

"We go to the MSU Horse Park nearly every day before the sun is even up. As soon as the sky fills with light, we're in the air. It's beautiful because I look around and see these students who fly to feel alive, who understand this skill, who appreciate it. It will always be there for them when they need it," Fox said.

The spring semester will be taught using the same methods as fall with most instruction online, while the students also will meet to fly at certain times.

MSU's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers a concentration in precision agriculture within the agricultural technology and business major. A certificate also is available across several majors in the college. For more on the CALS Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, visit

Date: 2020-12-17

Plant and Soil Sciences