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Patrick McDonald, airport operations and maintenance supervisor at Southern Illinois Airport, prepares the airport’s drone for a demonstration flight in July. Use of a drone commercially requires a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. McDonald also acquired special certifications from the FAA to operate the drone in the airport’s airspace.

Southern Illinois University Carbondale offered its first remote pilot certification course in November 2016. The course was designed to educate and certify remote pilots who operate unmanned aerial systems, otherwise known as UASs, or drones.

Along with many other aspiring remote pilots, I attended this class. Among the attendees were seasoned hobbyists, employees of Southern Illinois Airport, and a crew of producers from WSIL-TV3.

For this month’s aviation-focused Southern Business Journal, I caught up with WSIL's Production Manager Tom Mann to see how the use of drones has changed the way his station helps communicate with and inform their audience.

“In January we got our first drone here,” Mann said. “We had a Phantom 4 Pro. It was great. We graduated into an Inspire 2 … Inspire allows us to broadcast, and do a lot of things.”

As of September, Mann said his station has seven FAA certified pilots and is on track to add four more in the coming months.

“Pretty much every photog, it’s going to become like a second camera … Every car will have a drone with it. It’s part of what we do.”

Another part of what WSIL has done with its drone program is expand relationships throughout the community. From air traffic control at the Carbondale and Marion airports, to local emergency services, WSIL has rapidly expanded their role to include communication with and service to these groups.

The first drone-centric relationships that Mann and his team developed were with Southern Illinois Airport and Veterans Airport.

“After we got that [certification] we realized we can’t fly in Marion and Carbondale because it’s Delta airspace … We had to get authorizations first, then we applied for the waivers,” Mann said. “The big thing was developing the relationship with air traffic control in Marion and Carbondale, knowing the managers on a first-name basis, and letting them know what we were doing.”

When piloting drones to cover emergency situations such as car wrecks, fires and natural disasters, Mann has worked with WSIL’s pilots to ensure communication with officials on the ground is consistent.

“We’re developing a lot of SOPs,” Mann said. “Sometimes we’ll wind up helping fire, police, and law enforcement. I’ve got a couple of fire chiefs that have looked at me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a big fire. Can you fly that thing around different sectors of my building?’”

WSIL has recognized the potential of their drone program and its ability to help them fulfill their FCC mandate to operate in the interest of the general public.

When it comes to emergency situations, Mann says their pilots will be of service to the Southern Illinois community.

“We will do whatever we have to do. We will help whoever we have to help. It’s a public service … Part of our mandate with the FCC is to operate in the public interest. This is another way to do that,” Mann said.

While expanding their public service they have also generated increased public interest through their social media channels. For this reason they now receive requests directly from law enforcement for coverage of events like car wrecks that cause road closures

“It actually helps them with the traffic flow. We’re able to pop things up real quickly,” Mann said. “People will actually avoid the area.”

Much of the media they create with drones, whether pictures or video, reach tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people.

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