Larry LaRue

Looking up and looking ahead, Bates Technical College will offer classes on drones

Landon Johnson has seen the future, and there will be fewer cashiers in it, but more unmanned aerial vehicles and block-long vending machines.

“At some point, McDonald’s is going to realize it doesn’t need to pay eight people a higher minimum wage to take your order and your money. That can be done robotically,” Johnson said.

“There will be vending machines the size of convenience stores that supply everything a store would have. And someone is going to have to install them, fix them, upgrade them.

That’s where Johnson comes in. He’s a teacher in the Bates Technical College industrial electronics and robotics technician program.

A husband, father, guitarist, pilot and electrical engineer, Johnson is a 56-year-old with short spiked hair who’s far more comfortable in jeans and T-shirt than shirt and tie.

After years spent working at various companies, then the U.S. Department of Defense, Johnson found himself enjoying his work less and less.

“It was time for a change. Teaching is finding a way to communicate with each student and getting information into their head,” Johnson said. “If I can’t do it coming from north to south, I’ll try going south and working my way north.

“When some students come to a technical college, they feel like there’s a stigma. Some of them are in the bottom third of their graduating high school class. I show them the different way people learn, and then I ask them, ‘Are you stupid, or did you not learn because there was a communication glitch?’”

Beginning this fall, Johnson will teach a few new classes at Bates, making the Tacoma-based college one of the few in the state that offer courses on drones.

“I don’t like the word ‘drones,’ because people have a negative image of it,” Johnson said.

Critics say putting more eyes in the skies will violate citizens’ privacy. Most Washington state agencies are banned from buying drones or flying them for surveillance until next year while officials address privacy concerns.

But the world is changing rapidly, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are part of that. Amazon.com has promised to find a way to deliver purchases using them. Some police departments are deploying them, search-and-rescue teams have embraced them.

Name a business, a UAV might be an asset.

“I’m talking to a local high school coach about filming practice with my UAV,” Johnson said. “It’s got a camera on board, and I could take that puppy up a few hundred feet and catch everything the team does.”

Johnson bought a kit for a four-prop, square-looking UAV that’s lightweight and altogether remarkable. It can be programmed via onboard GPS equipment before a flight, then turned loose.

“It will follow the path laid out at the height you put in and go where you have told it to go,” Johnson said. “When it realizes it only has enough fuel left to get home, it comes home.”

Earlier this summer, Johnson was flying his UAV above the entry court at Bates when school President Ron Langrell walked by.

“He said, ‘Get some Bates decals on that,’” Johnson said.

The Bates UAV program will start with two courses that fit the existing curriculum, then determine if the need is large enough to add classes.

“We want our curriculum to reflect the changing job market,” said Lin Zhou, dean of instruction. “When we know new skills and knowledge are needed, we try to get there.”

Johnson has found only a few other colleges offering UAV courses, and all are aimed primarily at training pilots —that is, those who can fly drones from a computer.

“We’ll teach you how to fly one, because how can you test it if you can’t fly it?” Johnson said. “And we’ll teach you how to fix it when a pilot crashes it.”

Johnson, his wife and two children moved to Puyallup last year from Pennsylvania, where he’d taught for 13 years at the York Technical Institute. He plays guitar each Sunday at the Mount Rainier Christian Center Church.

“I’ve loved music all my life,” Johnson said. “When I was 5 years old, I had a thing for the bassoon.”

Now, he loves tinkering with his own UAV, and loves the idea of teaching students how to put one together and take it apart.

“These things are going to be everywhere, and the FAA is going to have rules and regulations. At some point, flying a UAV will be like buying a boat — you’ll have to be certified to operate it,” Johnson said.

“I want to help our students be ready to enter a job market that will boom when people realize they need someone to fix these things, to keep them flying.”

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