Mark Collins

Mark Collins

Why do airplanes fly? How do airplanes fly?

Mark Collins, associate professor of unmanned systems at Indiana State University, asked these questions as a curious child. Now, he’s helping Sycamores understand the answers.

Collins has always been interested in aviation. He was encouraged by a high school English instructor to pursue this interest. Following graduation, he served as an aircraft electrician in the United States Army and spent six years in the Illinois National Guard. After his military service, Collins continued to learn more about unmanned systems.

As a lifelong learner, Collins continues to expand his knowledge with various research topics, including a focus on large, unmanned cargo aircraft. He has partnered with public and government institutions, including Atlas Air, Indiana Department of Transportation, Terre Haute International Airport, Terre Haute Fire Department, and the Indiana State Police Department, to understand how unmanned systems and manned systems can share the same airspace.

Today, Collins instructs students at Indiana State in the mechanics of unmanned systems, communications and data links, airport operations, and payloads and sensors. Throughout his teaching, Collins educates Sycamores about how aviation and drones play a role in other fields, including agriculture and public safety.

Indiana State was one of the first universities to offer an undergraduate degree in unmanned systems. Today, Drone Training HQ ranks the University as one of the top five best drone training colleges in the United States. Indiana State’s faculty in the College of Technology provides hands-on training for students to keep them on top of their game with this advanced technology.

“Indiana State is expanding its unmanned systems program by adding new classes and faculty, and adapting to the industry’s standards,” Collins said. “Students learn about the significant regulations impacting unmanned systems, and the differences between unmanned and manned systems. They demonstrate proficiency in programming, preflight and flight operations, post-flight inspections, and mission analysis.”

The program relies on experiential learning for students to gain real-world experiences. Students meet with members of other academic departments, commercial operators, and government institutions to learn about resources they could adapt to their research with unmanned systems. This includes collaborations in fields of aviation technology, agriculture, earth and environmental science, criminology, criminal justice, electrical and computer engineering, and technology-built environment.

Students work alongside faculty on research projects, including robotics soil sampling, surveying and mapping Vigo County parks, determining the future market for unmanned aerial systems, building and operating small unmanned cargo delivery drones, and developing robotic mowers used around airports. As a group, students learn firsthand how technology plays a crucial role in the national airspace.

“We have a unique lab with over 80 different drones for students to train on, check out, and operate on their own. Student workers are available to train others, just like a pilot program. Once students complete their checklists and get checked out, they can operate a drone on their own,” said Collins.

Throughout the program, students learn everything about drones. In a course on unmanned mechanics, Collins’s students are provided with a drone kit including a MultiCopter aerial vehicle. Students build the vehicle and perform work to solder, wire, program, and operate the drone to its highest capabilities.

Before graduation, students complete a capstone course to showcase their skills. They can choose to work alongside community members, including the Terre Haute Fire Department and the Terre Haute Police Department, to use drones for search-and-rescue operations, and to complete technical reports and presentations.

“Because unmanned systems is so new, it’s just now being integrated into a lot of these public operations, like the police. Even with their vast experiences, they have very little knowledge of unmanned systems. So, it’s a unique collaboration between our students, faculty, and the Terre Haute community to train and operate drones,” Collins explained.

Collins loves to witness his students’ dedication as they learn complex operations. He eases his students into the program before gradually increasing the technical level of the course material. Along the way, upper-level students serve as mentors for others who are introduced to the program’s learning material.

“Our program is so new that there isn’t a textbook for it,” Collins expressed. “We have to create policies that didn’t exist before to create a safe environment so our students can operate and learn how to use drones and apply them in a commercial application.”

When he’s not teaching or working in labs, Collins extends his knowledge and influence to various student organizations, including a drone racing club and the Association of Unmanned Systems International. Students design unmanned cargo delivery aircraft to compete in national competitions. This hands-on training, along with collaborative group projects, prepares students for internships and future careers.

“I want students to know that the demand is extremely high for them. This is a job opportunity. It’s not just a game. You can make real money,” Collins explained. “Employers come to the Career Center to interview our students even before they graduate. I haven’t seen that before or in other industries. Employers are impressed with the capability of our students.”

Sycamores are trained for success. They meet professors, like Collins, who are eager to go wherever their futures can take them – even up, up and away to the sky. Because innovative learning begins with BLUE!