Special Operations Command seeks civilian drone pilots to develop new technology

An airman from Canon Air Force Base sits at the control module of a MQ-9 Reaper at Hurlburt Field in Florida on April 23, 2014.


By HOWARD ALTMAN | Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. | Published: August 21, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — For the last three years, Nicole Abbett has been using drones as part of her photography business, with clients like the city of Tampa and construction companies.

But Abbett, 35, is signing up for a new way of using her skills as a licensed drone pilot — for U.S. Special Operations Command.

SOCOM, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, is looking for volunteer drone pilots for a new research effort called ThunderDrone.

Abbett said she has no hesitancy about turning skills she's developed with her company, From Where I Fly, toward military use.

"Of course not," she said. "My dad is a Vietnam vet who earned two Purple Heart medals."

Located in a 7,000 square-foot space in Ybor City, and set up in conjunction with the Doolittle Institute defense research group, ThunderDrone has put out the call for Tampa-area pilots experienced in flying model multi-rotor and fixed wing aircraft — helicopters and airplanes.

They will test and prove drones and drone technology, flying the devices indoors and outdoors, within line of sight and around obstacles, in semi-autonomous and fully acrobatic mode, and using video controls.

"Unless specified, you don't need to bring your own equipment," according to a recent announcement from ThunderDrone, an offshoot of the technology development program known as Sofwerx that's run by SOCOM and the Doolittle Institute.

ThunderDrone "seeks to learn and understand drone potentials and limitations," said Navy Lt. Cmdr Lara Bollinger, a SOCOM spokeswoman.

Starting next month, ThunderDrone will begin hosting events in the new, state-of-the-art, 7,000-square-foot indoor drone test range — culminating in a prototype rodeo, Bollinger said.

Drone pilots accepted into the program will be matched with events based on their experience and skills and will be called upon to volunteer in shifts ranging from two hours to all day.

Tampa drone expert Randy Goers, who hosts The Drone Radio Show podcast, said ThunderDrone's request for local pilots is a win-win for the community and the command.

"I think the big opportunity is to be able to leverage some of ideas into some broader economic development opportunity," Goers said. "From my interviews around the country, a lot of regions have already seen drone technology develop jobs."

A space like ThunderDrone "could be the impetus for that kind of ecosystem to start here with like-minded people coming together, share ideas and build networks."

The volunteer pilot program is just one effort by Sofwerx to help develop drone technology. A main goal of the Sofwerx concept is creating a space away from MacDill where people without base access can take part in programs.

In keeping with this idea, ThunderDrone will host a series of rapid-prototyping sessions — high-intensity, short-duration events designed to generate "leaps in capabilities."

Among the first sets of challenges will be building and controlling swarms of drones, identifying and building the best drones and making use of data science.

Registration for the ThunderDrone Squadron is available at the Sofwerx website, sofwerx.org/thunderdrone-squadron.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com.

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