Eric Bidwell said that over the past three and a half years, about a fifth of his students who come through Wewahitchka High School’s drone training program have come out of the program professionally credentialled.
“I believe I have 10 students who have actually passed their pilot’s test to have their FAA actual national license,” he said. “They get a full on pilot’s license from the course, and that’s pretty significant, you know, in a small school.”
But with new state legislation going into effect at the beginning of the year, drones at Wewahitchka and other area high schools have been grounded, leaving the future of the drone programs uncertain.
In 2021, the Florida Legislature approved Senate Bill 44, which instructed the Florida Department of Management Services to create an “Approved Drone Manufacturers” list consisting of only American-made drone technology or technology produced by American allies. It aimed to prevent government agencies in the State of Florida, including public safety institutions and schools, from operating foreign-made drone technology, citing concerns about security.
That list went into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, with all government agencies, including schools, to have switched to the use of only approved drone manufacturers by Jan. 1, 2023.
But the staggering cost difference between the schools’ current models and those on the approved list has slowed these efforts considerably, said Bidwell.
“You have to start over from scratch and build an entire fleet,” he said. “I believe we spent about $15,000 to $25,000 on our original set of bones. So if we were to put all those to the side and start over, if we were going to replace it with a comparable, you’re probably looking at $40,000 to $50,000 just to be up and flying on January 1.”
“We’re not going to be able to do that. We’re gonna have to buy just a minimum two or three (drones) per school, which doesn’t cripple us, but it sure does handicap us.”
According to Bidwell, the majority of the drones being used in Gulf County high school programs are manufactured by DJI — a Chinese company that is the undisputed global leader in the drone market, but is perceived as a security threat by federal government agencies, particularly the Department of Defense.
DJI drones are widely used by governmental agencies and private consumers since they are considerably more affordable than their American-made counterparts.
According to a survey conducted by the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), the leading 501(c)3 non-profit organization supporting the use of drones for public safety and disaster response, 92% of Florida government drone programs are currently operating DJI drones as part of their fleet.
The same survey conducted by AIRT found that 95 percent of Florida public responders currently operating drone programs felt the state’s new legislation would negatively impact their ability to run the programs effectively.
Gulf District Schools’ Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Lori Price said that the district was looking into alternative funding sources that might help make up some of this gap, including applying for funding from Triumph, who helped front the money to start the programs almost five years ago.
“(Triumph doesn’t) want to see the program fold either,” she said. “I did the only thing I knew to do when we could get the answers on this new piece of legislation or I went to the superintendent… and he called up some folks that had once been affiliated with Triumph. They still had connections there, and shortly after that, we heard from triumph, and they asked for an inventory of our current drones, their value, and what it would cost to replace them.”
Price said the district has also been in contact with the local legislative delegation, State Rep. Jason Shoaf and State Sen. Corey Simon, about potential legislative solutions.
Bidwell said the losses to the program would be felt significantly by the program’s students, of whom there are about 50 across the district.
“It’s been a big deal for us. The kids have really enjoyed it, and you get a lot of kids who are otherwise not necessarily athletic or artistic,” he said. “They’re more into electronics down, you know, that engineering type student, the ones who are going to go on and do something in engineering or mechanics or something like that.”
“So, it really does hit a target audience that otherwise might kind of feel left out at school.”
This article has been corrected from an earlier version to indicate that one of the approved manufacturers is based in a country allied with the United States. The company utilizes American manufacturers for several domestically sold models.