Hackettstown’s Rodriguez a flying pioneer in the drone industry

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By Dan Hirshberg

 

Amy Rodriguez has something in common with the great aviator and flying pioneer, Amelia Earhart. While Earhart earned recognition in the 1930s as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean as well as creating many other standards for female pilots, Rodriguez is breaking ground in the Unmanned Aircraft Systems industry, known otherwise as drones.

 

In May, Rodriguez likely will become the first female to earn a degree in Warren Community College’s nationally recognized drone program as part of Warren’s first graduating class. This will put Rodriguez into an elite group of women around the country who are pioneers in a field that is growing rapidly but thus far male-dominated.

 

Rodriguez’s story of how she got involved in the drone program is a good start. The Hackettstown resident was hobbled by a ruptured Achilles tendon and other health issues beginning several years ago causing her to put her real estate career on hold. She was in bad shape overall.

 

“Honestly I thought I would never walk again,” said Rodriguez, who is 52. “I was disabled and homebound.”

 

Rodriguez, who still has trouble walking, wasn’t sure what to do with herself as she was not in a position to take on a new job or get back to real estate full-time. Then one day she got a pamphlet in the mail from Warren Community College highlighting programs offered there. The drone program caught her attention.

 

“I called the college to get more information and Dr. (Will) Austin called me back,” she said. Dr. Will Austin is the President of Warren and the college’s Chief Pilot.

 

“I wasn’t sure if I could go back to school,” Rodriguez said. “Was I too old? He assured me that you are never too old to learn something new.”

 

To test the waters, Rodrigues took an initial course with her son Joey. “I ended up really enjoying it so much,” she said. “This is above and beyond where I thought I was going with this.”

 

That first course had its challenges – physically. “I could never have done it without my son,” said Rodriguez, who after four surgeries could hardly walk. “I was on crutches and in a wheelchair. It wasn’t easy.”

 

Her son was with her only for the first class. From there, she did what she had to do to complete her courses, some of which were remote, which helped.

 

“After sitting at home for so long and doing nothing this turned out to be the best therapy for me,” said Rodriguez. “Emotionally and mentally this was for me, the way to go.”

 

“Amy is a real trooper,” lauded Dr. Austin. “Right from the start she’s been able to grasp the scope of drones and the industry as a whole. And as a woman in the industry she really is one of the pioneers.”

 

Rodriguez, who still does some limited work with Coldwell Banker in Chester as a sales associate, has already seen her efforts in the drone program pay off. She has been hired to take aerial photos for several real estate projects. Eventually she is looking to shoot videos as well.

 

Rodriguez points out, though, that there is more to this than just flying a drone.

 

“A lot goes into this,” she said. “You have to evaluate the weather and other factors, There are a lot of safety issues that need to be checked off.”

 

Ironically, Rodriguez is a 2005 graduate of WCC, earning an Associates in Early Childhood Education. She worked for a daycare center for a while then got into the real estate business. Now she is looking to mix part time real estate work with drone opportunities.

 

“I’m looking forward to the future!” she said.

 

The drone training program at Warren was established four years ago as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) operations became more and more prominent in a growing list of fields, from photography to inspections, to agriculture, to national defense, to law enforcement, and search and rescue. Soon, package delivery by companies like UPS and Amazon is expected to be another advancement of the industry. To aid its quickly growing program, the college built a state-of-the-art training laboratory, a one-of-a-kind outdoor flight training center, and a drone race track. Warren has been recognized by several national training partners as one of the most advanced training programs and has earned numerous FAA Part 107 waivers allowing for truly advanced operational training.

 

To ensure graduates are even more successful, the college uses flight simulation, and expands their value to the industry with photogrammetry and GIS skills.

 

“We do everything we can to get our students ready for the workforce,” said Dr. Austin. “They have learned about the industry from top to bottom, from procurement, to building drones from component parts, to programming robotic systems, and yes, advanced UAS piloting skills. They’ve flown just about every commercial drone the vast majority of the industry might use.”

 

Few colleges offer UAS degree programs and Warren is considered among the elite, with certifications from AUVSI, ASTM, and as a member of the FAA’s UAS Collegiate Training Initiative. To learn more about Warren and its drone training program visit warren.edu/drones.

 

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