STEUBENVILLE - Eastern Gateway Community College found itself tucked between the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation on a list released Tuesday of some 50 agencies and organizations authorized to fly drone aircraft domestically.
The list was obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in response to a Freedom of Information request by the San Francisco-based group, which seeks to establish digital rights through the nation's courts.
Finding themselves smack in the middle of a privacy firestorm, school officials say they don't have a drone on campus. What they do have is authorization to train people to operate drones - or, as they prefer calling them, unmanned aircraft systems. They designed the curriculum for the program, but soon discovered funding is limited at the moment so for now it's on the shelf.
Tracey Joltes, the assistant director of work force outreach at EGCC, insists there is no unmanned aircraft tucked in a closet at the school
"We don't have one sitting here in the closet, no," she said, noting that the school got its certificate of authorization to offer the training - and thus use it for educational purposes - in 2011, but it's on an as-needed basis. Despite contacting local agencies and organizations that might have a use for it, she said so far they haven't been able to find a local need and, therefore, no local funding source for the training.
"We have flown an unmanned aircraft system, but we don't really have one," Joltes said. "It's not like one you'd see over (war zones), these are very, very small. They fly under 400 feet and are very limited in scope. We have to keep them within sight, for educational purposes."
Joltes emphasized unmanned aircraft available domestically "aren't missile-firing" weapons of death, like those being used in war zones. Some of the organizations on the EFF list have COAs for research, she said, pointing out it's actually the kind of technology that can be used inemergency situations.
"A power company could use it to fly over and check its lines, they wouldn't have to send people out to do it," she said. "They could see where problems are and send someone out. Or it could be very helpful if there was, say, flooding, if the weather is bad and you can't send a helicopter in, you could use it to figure out where people are, whether they're stuck. If there was a hazardous situation, maybe a plume in the air, you wouldn't have to send someone in a plane or helicopter to (check it out)."
And Joltes said obtaining a COA and developing a training curriculum "isn't something you jump out and do" overnight.
"You have to go through a process," she said. "We're ahead of the game because we saw a marketing coming for commercial unmanned aircraft. Anyone who flies them needs to understand basic operation, the technology and how it's used."
Joltes said there are "very few programs that teach the skills, other than the military, because unmanned aircraft aren't widely utilized domestically now."
Whether Eastern Gateway's curriculum is actually put to use is going to be driven by demand.
"We're trying to determine what the market is, how we might be able to work" with companies and agencies seeking the training, she said.
COA requires Eastern Gateway to own the equipment used in the program, so last year the school partnered with a Hawaiian firm, Williams Aerospace, to bring one to Steubenville for instructional purposes. Once the instructor's training was complete, the unmanned craft was returned to Williams. When and if the course is offered, Joltes said Eastern Gateway will either purchase its own aircraft or partner with another company.