Cleared for takeoff : Doctoral student Kyla Berry shares her drone expertise with young females at Digital Divas

The sky's the limit for Eastern's drone expert

Kyla Berry and a young girl with a controller look up at a drone that is airborne at the Digital Divas event at the Student Center.

As Kyla Berry shows, drones aren’t just for military strikes or fancy photography anymore. They’re quickly becoming part of daily life. In some contexts, they could also mean the difference between life and death.

One day last March, Berry, a doctoral candidate in Technology (Technology Management concentration) at EMU, was leaving a fitness center in Ann Arbor Township after a workout. She noticed three police cars parked near the rear of the building. Police with canine units were searching the area near the Huron River.

“They were clearly searching for something, but the river was hard to access because of a steep drop,” Berry says. “I learned the police were looking for a missing person and were about to send a search helicopter. The weather was windy and cloudy, which would make the search even more difficult. I told them I’m a certified drone pilot and had a drone in my car. I offered to fly it over the area and help them.”

It took convincing, but after some conversation and a call to the station, police allowed Berry to assist with the search using her drone. Relying on Berry’s expertise, the police determined the person was not in that area. Later, police found the deceased man’s body several miles away in a creek that flows into the river.

“Drones can help us do many things that would otherwise be impossible,” Berry says. “In this case, the drone helped complete the search safely and in a timely manner. In other situations, police can scan a potentially dangerous area with a drone before sending in an officer. A fire department can send a drone over a burning building to determine the location of the fire or to see if people are trapped inside.”

Through her studies in EMU’s Aviation Management Technology program and educational work with Digital Divas, Berry has become known informally as Eastern’s “drone guru.” The university has a fleet of about 40 drones of various sizes for Berry’s use. She teaches aviation management courses at Eastern, and her doctoral thesis is about unmanned commercial passenger aircraft.

“You’ll basically go to the airport and board an unmanned plane that functions with no pilot,” Berry says. “We’re about five years out from this technology.”

At Digital Divas events, which are designed to give middle school and high school girls a glimpse of job opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Berry leads sessions on drones and careers in unmanned aviation. As a woman who began her career as a flight attendant before working in the automotive industry as a FAA standards consultant, Berry finds the opportunity to work with young girls uplifting.

“It’s important to make young girls feel empowered to pursue STEM careers,” she says. “If they can get into a STEM field early enough and grow with it, many opportunities will follow. I never thought I’d be working with drones when I started out as a flight attendant. Later, I could see drones playing a bigger role in our society. A certified drone pilot can use their skills in any number of careers.”

Berry expects to receive her doctorate in December. Then she plans on continuing to teach aviation classes at EMU, working with industry to implement unmanned aviation technology, and developing model drone kits for educational use at schools and STEM events. Berry and two business partners recently launched The Drone Science Company, which offers robust, easy-to-assemble and affordable drone kits.

“You have to be fearless with your career decisions and walk through doors that open to you,” Berry says. “Eastern has offered a ton of opportunities and resources to help me pursue my career. And that involves drones. Almost any industry—from agriculture to manufacturing to public safety—will work with drones in some way. Getting involved earlier rather than later, as in areas like unmanned aviation, my path to success.”

Visit EMU’s Aviation Program website to learn more about courses and careers in this growing field.

November 07, 2018

Written by:
Jeff Samoray

Darcy Gifford