From Ars Technica:
On the night of May 4, 2007, a tornado classified as a 5 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale reached the town of Greensburg, Kansas. Within 20 minutes, the storm ravaged 95 percent of the city’s infrastructure, leaving 11 residents dead and nearly 800,000 cubic yards of debris in its wake.
Tasked with expediting the town’s recovery and preventing future devastation, the state of Kansas allotted funding to various emergency response initiatives: debris removal, reconstruction of roads and buildings, and—less traditionally—the study of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations. In other words, Kansas spent money to study drones. (The term “drones” is generally avoided by commercial aviators and academics given its connections to the military and surveillance services.)
Though born of a specific regional need, the state’s academic investment reflects a nationwide trend: the rise of Bachelor of Science degrees in operating UAS. The beneficiary of the Kansas disaster money, Kansas State University (K-State) Salina, is one of the first three US universities to offer an undergraduate degree in UAS operations. The University of North Dakota introduced a major in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations in 2009, while Florida aeronautical university Embry-Riddle’s B.S. in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science debuted in 2011.
The scope of commercial applications for UAS has broadened dramatically in recent years. Enhanced techniques in filmmaking, environmental monitoring, and photography, as well as high-profile ideas such as Amazon’s 30-minute delivery service, have increased the need for skilled UAS operators.
“Unmanned aircraft systems is like the Wild West of aviation,” said John Robbins, assistant professor in the Aeronautical Science Department at Embry-Riddle. “It’s a brand-new area, and we know that these aircraft are going to be a component of the future of aviation.”
Most programs begin with courses in flight background and instruction: FAA regulations, the systems and circuit design of unmanned aircraft, remote sensors, aerodynamics, ground tools, robotics. These are combined with applied projects, such as building aircraft from plans or kits, flying unmanned aircraft in simulated environments, and field-operations courses complete with an air vehicle operator, an external pilot, and a visual observer.
Graduates of the UND and K-State programs receive Commercial and/or Private Pilot Certificates; Embry-Riddle students have the option to specialize in Professional Pilot Studies (in which case they become licensed) or in UAS Operations.
The states of North Dakota, Kansas, and Florida present a foil to the traditionally coastal tech industry, which has become closely identified with cities like San Francisco and New York. This is likely due to the comparatively open environments of the Midwest and South, whose lower population densities and flatter land provide hospitable climates for flying aircraft.
“We have a relatively low population density, so it’s not like we’re going to be trying to fly untested unmanned aircraft over New York City and Washington, DC,” said Ben Trapnell, Associate Professor of Aeronautics (UAS Operations) at UND. “It’s the people, it’s the place, and it’s the time.”
Weather also plays an important role. While extreme conditions have necessitated the use of UAS for emergency-response purposes, they are also useful for conducting flight training. In the Midwest, Trapnell said, dramatic changes in temperature and precipitation from season to season provide nearly all imaginable environments for flying, from the clear skies of a 70-degree day to the heavy snowfall of a dreary winter.
The universities’ proximity to flat, open land also renders them prime candidates for hosting UAS studies within the framework of two of the industries posing the greatest demand for operational skills: precision agriculture and pipeline patrol.
Describing a recent undergraduate capstone project, K-State Salina UAS Academic Program Lead Michael Most said, “One [of my students] wanted to do a payload integration so that he has a camera onboard an aircraft and [can] overfly his family farm, stitch together the images, and then overlay it on a three-dimensional model. He can compare that to historical aerial photographs and see what kind of changes have occurred over time.”
Investment in UAS programs appears to be paying off. Enrollment numbers, which began at a few dozen, now hover around triple digits. (K-State Salina anticipates having just under 100 students by fall of 2015, for example, while Embry-Riddle’s student count reached 196 in fall of 2014.) The majority of UAS-operations graduates have been hired as sensor operators and project managers, with some securing flight slots in the Air Force. Additional Midwestern schools, such as Purdue and Illinois’ Lewis University, have recently introduced their own versions of the degree.
“We’re showing significant positive growth. And that can be seen by the growth of the aircraft in markets,” said Robbins. “We look at what this evolving array of things [UAS] are capable of. We’ve seen heavy use of civilian applications such as increasing efficiency for firefighters or emergency management systems. These things are all capable of a different number of things that are going to significantly impact society in a beneficial way.”