A growing number of American universities now offer classes on operating an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), enrolling students who hope to one day find work for employers such as defense contractors. But will the lucrative jobs be there when they graduate? As U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan winds down and contractor salaries shrink, the answer to that question depends on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). If the FAA ultimately integrates UAVs into the national airspace, the Class of 2015 will find ample new opportunities as unmanned aircraft enter new fields.
Unmanned Aircraft 101
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., has been teaching America's young aviators how to fly since 1926. Two years ago the school added a new major in unmanned aircraft system sciences, and the response has been enthusiastic. "We already have 110 students in the program," says Nickolas "Dan" Macchiarella, chair of the aeronautical science department. "And we know that our fall enrollment will be even bigger."
Embry-Riddle's unmanned aircraft major offers two tracks, one pilot and the other non-pilot (it teaches skills such as sensor operators and UAV ground support crew). Both come with a heavy load of prerequisites in aeronautics and engineering. Pilots generally train with small civilian drones. However, in the capstone course, "AS 473: UAS Flight Simulation," students use simulators to practice with medium-altitude long-endurance vehicles: the same size class of UAV as the Predator or the Israeli Heron TP. "They conduct operations like the kind that would be used for homeland security and public safety," Macchiarella says.
Given the sensitive nature of the program, the State Department's regulations mandate that all unmanned aircraft system sciences students be U.S. citizens. But otherwise, they are just regular college kids.
And a number of "regular" colleges are now teaching UAV operation, too. These include the University of North Dakota, Northwestern Michigan College (which owns a small quadcopter and a Penguin B fixed-wing system), Kansas State University-Salina, and Liberty University (which offers courses like "GOVT 383: History and Nature of Intelligence Tools"). The State of Nevada is coordinating all of its UAV education through the brand-new Nevada Autonomous Systems Institute.