LSU Mechanical Engineering Instructor Creates ASPIRE Course for Educators

Andrew Becnel holds a small droneTwo-Week Class Will Entail Drone Training

May 7, 2024 

BATON ROUGE, LA – Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a drone. Drones are literally taking off and LSU Mechanical Engineering Senior Instructor Andrew Becnel wants students to keep up. Becnel, who is a graduate of LSU’s Mechanical Engineering program and has a master’s degree and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland, understands the importance of drone technology, especially in Louisiana.

This is why he has created the Louisiana ASPIRE—Aerial Systems Pilot Instruction & Resource Endeavor—program, a two-year effort to train high school educators on drone technology so they can teach it to their students through a course or student organization. This is the first Federal Aviation Administration grant LSU has ever received.

Becnel, who flies drones for fun and founded his own aerial imagery LLC, wrote his ASPIRE proposal after participating in Walker High School’s drone pilot training program two years ago. He realized there was an opportunity to expand upon this kind of program by training high schoolers in flying drones and, possibly, interesting them in aerospace engineering.  

“LSU currently has a minor in aerospace engineering, and I plan to offer a course on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations and design,” Becnel said. “ASPIRE is an opportunity to establish LSU as a center of excellence for drone education in the state. Since we’re a flagship university, it makes sense to me that we would be a resource to help educators around the state disseminate this information.”

Using a well-structured, train-the-trainer model developed by Advanced Aerial Education (AAE) in Alaska, ASPIRE will assemble a cohort of 20 high school educators from across Louisiana for an intensive two-week professional development program delivered at Walker High School, July 15-26. The lead instructor from AAE will attend and instruct the class, with participants flying inexpensive drones that are easy to crash.

“We want them to get comfortable crashing multiple times,” Becnel said. “In an hour or two, we’ll talk theory and discuss the lesson, then fly drones for 30 minutes and practice what we were just talking about. The program will be very hands-on and engaging.”

ASPIRE will not only enable the educators to attain FAA Part 107 certification as UAS pilots, it will also provide them with curriculum materials and logistical support to successfully integrate UAS training into their home schools’ curricula or extracurricular activities and better prepare their students for careers in the aviation industry or finding a job flying commercial drones.

“We’re trying to recruit a broad population of teachers,” Becnel said. “Students at schools around Baton Rouge who don’t have extracurricular activities shouldn’t be left out. Having this kind of vocational training early means they could have a job ready for them when they turn 16, which is the age you can attain your UAS pilot’s certificate. There’s a clear need in industry for more pilots.”

Becnel said Amazon is one such company students could eventually work for since it’s exploring delivering packages using drones. Oil and gas companies could also use drone pilots to complete inspections in less time and for lower cost than traditional methods.

“It’s easy for me to imagine a lot of compelling reasons for Louisiana students to care about learning to fly a drone,” Becnel said. “Drone pilots can be used in industrial plants, in agriculture, and in coastal studies.”

LSU Department of Oceanography & Coastal Sciences Adjunct Professor Marcelo Cohen is serving as the co-PI on the project and will use his expertise in flying drones to explain to the cohorts how drones can impact the state. Cohen teaches a class at LSU called Remote Sensing of Coastal Landforms and Vegetation Using Drones and has worked on the Holocene and Anthropocene history of mangrove dynamics on the Brazilian coast and in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions.

“Drones can revolutionize many fields, such as geography, oceanography, geology, agronomy, biology, engineering, and architecture,” Cohen said. “I just used drones to show how hurricanes impact mangroves and coastal morphology. A drone camera can record the near-infrared to assess whether vegetation was impacted by, for example, winter freezes, hurricanes, or pests. With a spatial resolution of 2 cm, drone images allow us to accurately identify mangrove expansion along subtropical coasts due to global warming. Nowadays, drones with Real-Time Kinematic (RTK) corrections are also essential for developing high-accuracy digital elevation models to identify and quantify coastal erosion and determine areas most vulnerable to flooding due to sea-level rise and hurricanes. Therefore, students and society as a whole could benefit from people having access to drones.”

Cohen will join Becnel at the ASPIRE program training, which will ultimately impact hundreds of students and pave a path for them in aerospace or another field.

“ASPIRE will impact 400 students each year, with about 1,000 pilots trained at the end of the two-year program,” Becnel said. “It’s really incredible, and we are grateful to the FAA for their support in this endeavor.”

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Contact: Libby Haydel
Communications Manager