Drones, new tech fostering “brand new profession” for VCU students

Gary Gillam, who teaches a class on operating drones, was one of the rst people to receive a license to y the unmanned objects. Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Hannah Eason, Contributing Writer 

Gary Gillam’s drone fascination grew several Christmases ago, as he and his sons crashed their new toy drones into the walls of their living room.

The supervisor of the Robertson School’s Audio and Video Lab had years of experience in television production and had produced helicopter footage, but drones were astonishingly cheaper. An hour-long helicopter rental started at $600, but a drone was only $1,500 to purchase.

“Five years ago, there wasn’t a television station in the United States that thought about flying a toy camera up in the sky to get pictures,” Gillam said. “Now, every station is trying to figure out how to get a [drone] pilot in the door.”

When the Federal Aviation Administration started regulating drones, Gillam had already found a hobby in building and flying unmanned aerial vehicles. Gillam went to an FAA-approved testing site and passed a mandatory drone certification test on the first day it was offered, making him one of the first to do so.

“It’s the same amount of qualifications as a plane or helicopter pilot,” Gillam said. “It can fall out of the sky and hurt someone just the same.”

This certificate gave him the formal qualifications he needed to teach students how to use drones in their professions.

“This technology is so new that it’s a brand new profession,” Gillam said.

Gillam and broadcast journalism professor Tim Bajkiewicz were co-professors of the special topics course called New Media Technology, offered in fall 2018. Gillam plans to teach the class again next spring.

“Drones are important not only in journalism but also in advertising, filmmaking and other areas of communication because they can give you a perspective that you can’t get on the ground,” said Jeff South, director of the Robertson School undergraduate studies and journalism professor, in a news release.

Photo by Gessler Santos-Lopez

Gillam said drone operation skills are applicable in many professions, including criminal justice, farming and construction.

“Somebody in Hong Kong could see progress on a building project in Richmond,” Gillam said.

Senior Morgan Edwards took Gillam and Bajkiewicz’s class last semester as an elective.

“I didn’t realize how much you could actually do with a drone,” the photographer and print journalism major said.

VCU public relations classes have also adapted to the use of drones. Public relations major Cedric Page learned about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in Visual Communication and Design for Public Relations.

“We have a great resource available through the mass communications department to allow us to check out cameras,” Page said. “It helps us bring a new perspective to the equipment provided to us.”

Page used a drone to take photos and designated each photo with a chapter in a book about Richmond. Each shot displayed an aerial view of a popular street in Virginia’s capital.

The senior said the class, taught by professor Bonnie Hanger, used drone cameras when rain made it impossible to use a handheld camera.

Visual Communications and Design will be taught in four sections next semester, two by Hanger and one by instructor Alan Rhea Davis — one section’s instructor is undetermined.

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