UH Hilo launches new certificate program in unmanned aircraft systems

The Certificate in Unmanned Aircraft Systems is the first step in the aeronautical science program at UH Hilo.

By Jamie Josephson.

Roberto Rodriguez helps student in lab.
Instructor Roberto Rodriguez (left) helps student prepare for field practice of unmanned aerial vehicles (see field photos below). Photos by Kimiko Taguchi, click to enlarge.

Planning for future workforce needs, the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo launched four new courses this semester to establish a Certificate in Unmanned Aircraft Systems, a first step in the university’s long planned aeronautical science program. The certificate program focuses on training in the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and the new courses offered this fall include hands-on classroom and field work in an introductory course on UAS, robotics (building and flying UAS), simulated missions, and flying techniques.

UH Hilo students who complete these four courses plus three upper-level geography classes in data interpretation, remote sensing, and information systems, receive a Certificate in Unmanned Aircraft Systems. According to the UH Hilo Course Catalog, “Graduates of the UAS certificate program will possess a skill set valuable in the unmanned aerial data collection field.”

Arthur Cunningham
Arthur Cunningham

“Unmanned aircraft are becoming more and more popular, with the potential being recognized by new industries every day,” says Arthur Cunningham, coordinator of the UH Hilo aeronautical science program.

In the introductory UAS course, students learn operational principles, laws, and theory about UAS, and conclude with receiving a Federal Aviation Administration remote pilot airman certificate (Part 107) with small UAS rating—this is a pilot license to operate unmanned aircraft commercially. Licensed aircraft operators could potentially get jobs working with companies or government agencies for infrastructure inspections, real estate photography, agricultural mapping, natural disaster assessment, natural resource surveys, law enforcement, or research in almost any field that uses sensors or cameras, for some examples.

Teaching the UAS courses this semester is Roberto Rodriguez, who transferred from UH Mānoa where he received his master of science and is currently pursuing his doctor of philosophy in bioengineering. He enjoys teaching students about unmanned aircraft because he sees the potential for the field to advance.

“UAS works well with my bioengineering background because these aircraft are able to collect data from a large plot of land using cameras, chemical sampling, and water sampling,” Rodriguez says. “This is especially useful for agriculture as a time and money saving technology.”

(Below photos) In the field practicing flying techniques. At top left is Andy Cole–who is a UH Hilo graduate student, an auxiliary student flight instructor, and president of the Hawai‘i County Radio Control Flight Club—demonstrating operation of multiple aircraft types used for hobby and training purposes. Click photos to enlarge.

Technology and skill set of the future

Cunningham explains there are many instances where unmanned aircraft is able to perform a job that people on their own wouldn’t be able to accomplish.

“Jobs that are dull, dirty, or dangerous are often completed with the help of unmanned aircraft,” Cunningham explains. “They are able to cover a large area of space in a short amount of time and they are also relatively expendable, meaning they can go places that would be too dangerous for people.”

In the future, Cunningham hopes to introduce a manned pilot school along with the unmanned aircraft training to advance the aeronautical science program at UH Hilo.

“We are working on engineering the classes and curriculum for the manned pilot school,” he says. “We want to make sure we come up with the right program that is the right fit for the university and community.”

Cunningham is thrilled at the level of student and community interest so far for the UH Hilo aeronautical science program. He hopes to see enrollment increase as more courses and programs are introduced at the university and community level over the next few years.

UAV overhead with bird flying to the right.

Dec. 12, 2017—This story was edited to correct information about Roberto Rodriguez’s advanced degrees and to add information about Andy Cole’s role in the UAS program.


Author Jamie Josephson (senior, English) and photographer Kimiko Taguchi (senior, geography and environmental studies) are interns in the Office of the Interim Chancellor.

-UH Hilo Stories