The first step forward on a project to expand drone programs at Gulf Coast State College was taken last week by the board of Triumph Gulf Coast.
The next steps will require some fine-tuning.
During a meeting last week at the Gulf/Franklin Center, the Triumph board provided “conceptual” approval for the college’s “Unmanned Aerial Systems Pilot Boot Camp for Exiting Military” proposal.
The project, with proposed funding over $3 million, will now enter negotiations on a term sheet which would lead to a formal grant.
During last week’s the presentation, Triumph board members raised two specific concerns, according to Jim McKnight, a college trustee as well as executive director of the county Economic Development Coalition.
Concerns focused on continuing the program beyond the college’s proposed four-year plan and the other increasing match dollars to lower the percentage of Triumph funding for the project.
“We’re optimistic,” McKnight said. “It’s a great program.”
Among the items in last week’s agenda was a letter from GCSC increasing its match of dollars and another letter from a partner in the college’s ongoing done program adding dollars to the pot.
McKnight said the college would work with Triumph on finding the appropriate financial balance.
The “boot camp” is a 9-12 week program designed to assist veterans exiting the military in Northwest Florida counties from Santa Rosa to Wakulla.
Courses would be offered at the college’s Panama City and Port St. Joe campuses.
Students successfully completing the program would earn eight different industry certifications, including ground school, simulation training and flight training, in the operation of unmanned aerial systems, i.e. drones.
In simpler terms, they can emerge from the program as certified drone pilots.
The program will include online coursework, face-to-face instruction and hands-on work with drones.
The goal is 800 industry certifications in unmanned aerial systems in the first three years of the boot camp program.
According to the college’s application, students who complete the boot camp and earn all eight certifications will have a 90 percent placement rate; in other words will find a job.
In the program application, it is noted that forecasts indicate that companies such as Amazon, Google, Textron, Boeing and Verizon will be hiring up to 100,000 pilots of remote aerial systems nationwide by 2025.
In Northwest Florida alone the estimated need is 19,000 certified pilots, according to a study cited in the application.
There is also information provided by the U.S. Air Force about the need for programs to assist veterans leaving the military for civilian life.
Salaries for drone pilots start around $55,000 a year and increase to as much as $130,000 with experience; the national average salary for experienced remote pilots is $83,000.
In addition, McKnight said, the boot camp for exiting military has the potential to serve as a “wrap-around” program for the drone training courses arriving this school year at the county’s public high schools.
The boot camp is designed to offer a path for students successfully completing those programs.
“Although the program’s initial focus will be transitioning military, it will also be available to our local students completing the high school drone program,” McKnight said.
The college’s application also suggests that the boot camp will offer a workforce pipeline in the unmanned aerial systems sector that could lure additional companies to the area and establishing facilities and creating additional jobs.
The application characterized the program as potentially “transformational” in a region the college serves and which the state considers economically distressed, adding high-paying jobs that will assist in rebuilding communities devastated by Hurricane Michael.
The Gulf County Board of Commissioners recently submitted a letter of support for the application.
Triumph Gulf Coast was established by the Florida Legislature to disburse some $1.5 billion in fine monies from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill into the eight Northwest Florida counties most impacted by the spill.