Dozens of universities are offering — or planning to offer — drone programs. “We don’t call them drones, we call them unmanned aircraft systems integration,” says Marty Rogers, director of the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Rogers is starting a drone program this fall as part of the engineering department. The course will focus on the technology that makes drones fly. The university already flies nine drones for research into climate change, volcanoes, large animals and marine life. And, last week, the University of South Florida’s library announced that students will be allowed to borrow “quadcopters” — mini drones — for aerial photography.
There is even a university specializing in drones. “We keep inventing courses that have never been taught before,” says Jerry Lemieux, president of the Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix. Lemieux — a former Top Gun pilot in the U.S. Air Force and Delta 767 pilot — founded the school in 2012. It offers a certificate (4-credit course), Masters (9-credit course) and Ph.D. (12-credit course) for $1,600 per credit. The online courses range from the law surrounding drones to pilot training, which also involves two days at one of the university’s 10 flight schools. One recent graduate, he says, snagged a job as a UAV (unmanned aviation vehicle) analyst at an aviation manufacturing company in Florida earning $100,000 a year.
The opportunities for graduates range from agriculture, forestry, military service, engineering, computer science, commercial contractors and even the film industry, Lemieux says. Companies that hire unmanned engineers and pilots include aerospace and defense companies Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin , and aircraft manufacturer Boeing (BA). His main focus is navigation and flight safety. “Human error is one cause of accidents,” Lemieux says. “You flip the wrong slip and press the wrong button, you have a crash.” In fact, a recent “Washington Post” report found that over 400 large U.S. military drones have crashed since 2001.
The government is also reaching out to colleges. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a “Centers of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” which will fund a consortium of colleges and universities to study issues like noise mission and other compatibility with air traffic control operations. Representatives from more than 100 colleges and universities, as well as 200 people from industry and government attended a public meeting on the issue in May. And, last December, the FAA awarded 25 organizations — including the University of Alaska, Texas A&M University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University — drone operating sites to study drone safety and navigation.
Despite some multi-billion-dollar estimates, it is still a tightly regulated industry, and more regulations are expected as the number of unmanned aircraft increases due to better technology and cheaper prices. The Federal Aviation Administration forbids the operation of drones without a “certificate of waiver or authorization” and they’re not easy to get. It has only authorized use of drones for “important missions in the public interest,” such as firefighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, border patrol and military training.
Case in point: Matt Waite, professor of practice at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, received a cease-and-desist letter when he used a drone as part of his journalism laboratory project to show the extent of drought in the Platte River. He is currently seeking a certificate from the FAA. “We want to study how journalists might use them safely and ethically,” Waite says.