The Drone Boom: More Colleges Offering Drone Piloting Programs, War Inc. is Hiring

NBC News
January 31, 2013

 

Super Way Cool Military Careers, Yeah! Be a drone - fly a drone!Randal Franzen was 53, unemployed and nearly broke when his brother, a tool designer at Boeing, mentioned that pilots for remotely piloted aircraft – more commonly known as drones – were in high demand.

Franzen, a former professional skier and trucking company owner who had flown planes as a hobby, started calling manufacturers and found three schools that offer bachelor’s degrees for would-be feet-on-the-ground fliers: Kansas State University, the University of North Dakota and the private Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

He landed at Kansas State, where he maintained a 4.0 grade point average for four years and accumulated $60,000 in student loan debt before graduating in 2011. It was a gamble, but one that paid off with an offer “well into the six figures” as a flight operator for a military contractor in Afghanistan.

Franzen, who dreams of one day piloting drones over forest fires in the U.S., believes he is at the forefront of a watershed moment in aviation, one in which manned flight takes a jumpseat to the remote-controlled variety.

While most jobs flying drones currently are military-related, universities and colleges expect that to change by 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration is due to release regulations for unmanned aircraft in domestic airspace. Once those regulations are in place, the FAA predicts that 10,000 commercial drones will be operating in the U.S. within five years.

Although just three schools currently offer degrees in piloting unmanned aircraft, many others – including community colleges – offer training for remote pilots. And those numbers figure are set to increase, with some aviation industry analysts predicting drones will eventually come to dominate the U.S. skies in terms of jobs.   

At the moment, 358 public institutions – including 14 universities and colleges – have permits from the FAA to fly unmanned aircraft. Those permits became public last summer after the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The government issues the permits mainly for research and border security. Police departments that have requested them to survey dense, high crime areas have been rejected.

Some of the schools that have permits have been flying unmanned aircrafts for decades; others, like Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, received theirs recently to start programs to train future drone pilots.

Alex Mirot, an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle who oversees the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science program there, said this generation of students will pioneer how unmanned aircraft are used domestically, as the use of drones shifts from almost purely military to other applications.

“We make it clear from the beginning that we are civilian-focused,” said Mirot, a former Air Force pilot who remotely piloted Predator and Reaper drones used to target suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere for four years from a base in Nevada.

“We want them to think about how to apply this military hardware to civilian applications.”

Among the possible applications: Monitoring livestock and oil pipelines, spotting animal poachers, tracking down criminals fleeing crime scenes and delivering packages for UPS and FedEx.

With U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, drone manufacturers also are eager to find new markets. AeroVironment, a California company that specializes in small, unmanned aircrafts for the military, recently unveiled the Qube, a drone designed for law enforcement surveillance.

The FAA hasn’t allowed police agencies to fly drones over populated areas – because of concerns about airspace safety, as drones have crashed or collided with one another abroad. But that hasn’t stopped some agencies from buying them in anticipation of their eventual approval. The Seattle Police Department, for example, has two small aircraft, which two officers occasionally fly around a warehouse for practice. For now, a police spokesman said, federal rules are too restrictive to use them outside. 

The domestic market is so nascent that there isn’t even agreement on what to call unmanned aircraft – “remotely piloted aircraft,” “unmanned aerial vehicles” – UAVs – or by the most mainstream term, “drones.” The latter makes many advocates bristle; they say the term confuses their aircraft with the dummy planes used for target practice – or with the controversial planes used to kill suspected terrorists abroad.

Industry attracting engineers and pilots
Students at Embry-Riddle train on flight simulators that closely resemble the Predator, an armed military drone with a 48-foot wingspan, because the FAA will not issue a drone license to a private institution.

Without guidance from the FAA, Embry-Riddle has struggled with how to create a robust program that will turn out employable graduates.

“As of now there aren’t rules on what an (unmanned aircraft) pilot qualification will be,” Mirot said. “You have to go to employer X and ask them, ‘What are you requiring?’ And that becomes the standard.”

The bachelor’s degree program also includes 13 credits in engineering, so students understand the plane’s whole system, Mirot said.

Embry-Riddle recently graduated its first student with a bachelor’s degree, but those who graduated earlier with minors in unmanned aircraft systems have fared well, Mirot said.

“I had a kid who deployed right away and he was making $140,000,” Mirot said. “That’s more than I ever made. Yeah, he’s going into Afghanistan, but he had no previous military experience or security clearance.”

Mirot said many of his students aspire to be airline pilots. But with salaries for commercial airline pilots starting as low as $17,000 in the first year, they plan to start in unmanned systems to pay off their loans, then maybe apply for an airline job, he said.

The University of North Dakota, which launched its unmanned aircraft systems operations major in 2009, has similar success stories. Professor Alan Palmer, a retired brigadier general of the North Dakota National Guard, said 15 of the program’s 23 graduates now work for General Automics in San Diego, which makes the Predator and Reaper drones used in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Engineering and computer science students, too, are in demand by the drone industry. At least 50 universities in the U.S. have centers, academic programs or clubs for drone engineering or flying. Many of the engineering students work on projects making the drones “smarter” – that is building more sensitive sensors – and studying how the robots interact with humans.

George Huang, a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who builds drones the size of hummingbirds, said nearly all his 20 students work as researchers for the Air Force. This means they’re earning between $60,000 and $80,000 a year while still enrolled, instead of the $15,000 stipend that graduate students typically receive from their schools.

Read the full article— Anticipating domestic boom, colleges rev up drone piloting programs