Like many college sophomores, Ethan Voigt has homework, a job and classes to attend. But his homework includes flying an airplane three to four times a week.
Voigt and about 150 of his classmates at the University of North Dakota (UND) are studying to be drone pilots. In order to earn their bachelor’s degrees in unmanned aircraft systems operations, they have to learn how to fly manned aircraft first.
The degree requirements include getting a commercial pilot’s certificate, plus a multi-engine rating. But Voigt is not sure he’ll have to take that class. In the absence of Federal Aviation Administration regulations for commercial unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) operations, the program’s requirements are still up in the air as it tries to prepare students for a new industry.
“They’re always changing my major,” he said.
Colleges wanting to prepare would-be drone pilots aren’t waiting for the FAA to issue rules regarding drone flights. The University of North Dakota began its UAS degree program in 2009, and several other schools now offer certificates and bachelor’s and master’s programs related to drone piloting, operations and data management.
In Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Northland Community and Technical College certifies students in UAS maintenance.
In June, Curtis Zoller, associate dean of Northland’s aerospace department, spoke at the UAS Action Summit about the program, the first of its kind. To keep the curriculum current for a field constantly in flux, Northland works with drone industry partners and uses their company reports and presentations in classes, he said.
“That’s more relevant than a textbook you might have pulled off the shelf a few years ago,” Zoller said. “In UAS technology, we don’t have a book. One hasn’t been written.”
No drones for drone students
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” said Al Palmer, director of UND’s Center for UAS Research, Education and Training. “Right now, since there are no requirements for commercial operations with unmanned aircraft, our fallback position is we’ll set it up for commercial pilot certification, [with] either an airplane or a helicopter.”
Aspiring drone pilots can’t actually fly drones in class. The FAA prohibits commercial UAS operation, so universities can’t use them.
UND has about half a dozen drones, Palmer said, and students learn on simulators.
While the university would like to be able to fly its unmanned vehicles, Palmer said most drones are piloted from a simulator or simulator-type device anyway. And sometimes simulators are better than real equipment, especially when preparing students for what can go wrong.
“The airlines haven’t used airplanes for training for decades, because the simulators are so highly sophisticated and replicate the airplane in the smallest details,” Palmer said.
Similar to UND, Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University requires drone piloting majors to obtain a commercial pilot’s certificate. But they also fly small unmanned systems, indoors or tethered to the ground, said Dan Macchiarella, chair of the aeronautical science department. The school also has a partnership with local law enforcement, one of the few groups that can get certificates of authorization to fly drones.
Dirty, dull, dangerous jobs
Embry-Riddle’s students also use simulators to prepare for a variety of scenarios, including assessing forest fires or oil spills, completing search and rescue missions or patrolling the border.
Macchiarella said once the FAA issues regulations for commercial UAVs, he expects to see thousands of applications related to those purposes. Drones, he added, will do the jobs that are “dirty, dull or dangerous.”
While “drone pilot” doesn’t have its own listing in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, industry groups like the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International expect a large increase in demand. In its 2014 economic report, the association predicts 70,000 drone-related jobs will emerge within three years of finalized regulations. That number will grow to more than 100,000 by 2025.
Macchiarella said Embry-Riddle’s UAS science students have a 95 percent job placement rate within a year of graduation. Graduates often go on to work at military-related jobs, he said, noting, “The global war on terror creates lots of jobs for unmanned systems.”
Flying the future
Voigt plans to get a job with General Atomics, an Air Force contractor. But ultimately, he’d like to run his own drone crop-dusting business.
Aaron Schwartz, who graduated from UND this spring, got an internship at defense contractor Northrop Grumman processing drone mission data. Both he and Voigt said an interest in traditional aviation led them to major in drones. As a kid, Schwartz loved airplanes, but he said working in this side of aviation means he can “help design the future.”
Students aren’t choosing the major just for the job opportunities. They’re often more idealistic.
“They’re looking at this as the next revolution, and they want to be a part of it,” Palmer said.
No matter what motivates students, drone degree programs are growing and evolving as the industry and regulations develop. Embry-Riddle started with seven students in its UAS major when it began three years ago; today it has about 220 enrolled. About 50 students have received their bachelor’s degrees in UND’s drone program, and it now has triple that number of students.
“It’s cutting-edge technology, so it’s pretty attractive,” Voigt said.
“Five years from now, the program will be different,” Schwartz said. One of his senior year classes turned the students into teachers, telling instructors what changes would be helpful in the curriculum to better prepare them for the industry.
Palmer compared the drone industry’s status to manned aviation’s beginnings, noting the airplane was used in World War I and first was an effective weapon before it was commercialized.
“Now when you get on an airplane to fly somewhere in the world, about the only thing you worry about is your luggage—that it’s going to get there at the same time as you,” he said. “Unmanned is at the same tipping point.”