West Point resident aims for career in drone aviation

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Peyton Brabrand looks up at the sky and sees limitless opportunities, both in flight and in the budding field of drone aviation.

Aviation has been a lifelong passion for Peyton, a West Point resident. He grew up on the Outer Banks just miles from where Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted the first successful manned flight more than a century ago. When he was 12 years old, Peyton took his first flight in a small private airplane in the skies above West Point.

“It was one of the coolest experiences in my life,” Peyton said.

The 16-year-old is now on the cusp of getting his drone pilot license after a year of study and will likely earn it comfortably before his driver’s license.

Peyton is drawn to drone aviation in part because it’s more financially accessible than manned flight, though he is also pursuing a private pilot’s license and he has experience flying small aircraft out of Middle Peninsula Regional Airport.

“It’s a new frontier,” he said.

Peyton owes his education in the quest for his drone certification to the Youth Aeronautics Education Foundation, a Mattaponi-based nonprofit that provides hands-on flight training to local youths.

The organization, founded about a decade ago, has several programs for different age groups, including a new drone program launched about a year ago, said Sam Billings of Youth Aeronautics Education Foundation.

“We try to prepare them for 21st-century careers,” Billings said.

In the drone program, about 10 students take monthly classes to prepare for the certification exam. Peyton was among the first students to enroll in the program and will likely be among the first to get his certification, Billings said.

“He’s going into a new type of career,” Billings said.

Other people who have gone through the nonprofit’s programmings have gone on to careers as military or civilian pilots, Billings said.

A 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International on the economic impact of drones predicted the industry would create about 100,000 jobs by 2025 and generate more than $82.1 billion between 2015 and 2025 in the United States.

In the military, those interested in drone technology can find work as remotely piloted aircraft operators or maintainers. Civilian drone operators either will or currently do find work in photography, package delivery, real estate and other tasks.

The nonprofit covers most costs associated with flight training for its students, including education and testing for credentials. It typically costs between $200 and $300 to earn a drone certification. To cover the expenses involved in an airplane pilot’s license, which would normally cost anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000, students end up paying about $3,000 to buy fuel. Students also pay an application fee to enroll in the nonprofit’s programming, Billings said.

Once he has a drone license and a new drone, Peyton wants to continue pursuing aviation and a pilot’s license.

Peyton’s mom, Amy, is supportive of her son’s interest in aviation, though she sometimes worries when he’s at the controls of a manned craft.

“It’s exciting,” Amy Brabrand said. “As a parent, it’s wonderful to see him find an avenue to be able to pursue in that field.”

Peyton hopes to have his drone certification and a professional-level drone by the middle of January. To get his certification, Peyton must pass written exams at a Federal Aviation Adminstration-approved facility, in his case likely Rick Aviation in Newport News.

For now, Peyton tinkers with basic drones in his yard and other drones on retailers’ demonstration lots. His personal drone, a DJI Phantom 1, is somewhat outdated, but useful for tinkering and flying around his yard.

“It’s the equivalent of the Wright flyer,” he said.

But given the changing dynamics of the field, it’s difficult to pin down a specific career goal, Peyton said. Some avenues could be the military or flying for a survey company.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t publish data specifically for drone pilots, in part because the occupation is relatively new and not enough data exists to determine average salaries and job growth, said Erin Delaney, a bureau economist.

But yet-to-be-determined details are to be expected in the new world of drone aviation. Wherever the field goes, Peyton intends to help lead the way.


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