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Published December 23, 2013, 12:26 PM

Minnesota college teaches how to analyze drone images

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. (AP) — Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls is offering a program teaching students how to analyze images from unmanned military aircraft.

THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. (AP) — Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls is offering a program teaching students how to analyze images from unmanned military aircraft.

It offers a one-year Imagery Analysis certificate and a two-year associate's degree in Geospatial Intelligence Analysis, according to Minnesota Public Radio News.

In a recent training session, 19-year-old student Emily McGrath used a computer-simulated video to fly over a tiny island off the coast of Spain. As she manipulated a joystick, the landscape unfolded on the screen in front of her.

"I kind of view it as a huge I-spy hunt," McGrath said. "You could look at this imagery for like hours and hours and still not find everything that you need to. It's fun, but it's also nerve-racking."

School spokesman, Jason Trainer, said the school has the first two-year program in the nation offering the certificate and the program.

Many of the analysts scrutinizing the images transmitted by drones have received military training.

The program teaches students how to use various computer systems that could prepare them for a military or civilian job. They learn complex geospatial computer programs that require math skills. They also hone writing skills and study privacy laws.

Imagery analysis is part of a new drone focus at Northland Community and Technical College. Two years ago the school started an unmanned aircraft maintenance training program.

When the first class started last spring, there were 52 students. Only 21 remain, but instructor Sterling Williams expects most of them to complete a two-year year degree next fall. Many of the students are recent high school graduates. But a few have college degrees. Williams said a couple of students hold doctorates.

Trained as an imagery analyst in the U.S. Army, Williams has 20 years of experience working in military and defense industry jobs.

Although their course of study is relatively new, the students could be helped by the federal government, which is developing a process to certify imagery analysts.

Williams said all students who complete the program will meet federal standards.

The military won't be the graduates' only option.

The Federal Aviation Administration is developing rules to regulate how unmanned aircraft share the nation's airspace and once they are in place a number of fields could use them. Drones carrying sensors and cameras could be used in precision agriculture, emergency management or jobs that have yet to be created.

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