Charles A. Taylor loves radio-controlled model airplanes — a hobby, he decided, that could give him a leg up in a potentially lucrative new industry: drones. Mary A. Wallace expected to end up in management at an airport or airline but switched majors to remotely piloted planes because, incongruously, there would be less travel. Thomas Boutain wanted to start a company serving farmers around the Minnesota town where he grew up, mapping moisture, growth, pests and other conditions in their fields, from the air.
All three were among the first to choose the University of North Dakota’s new major in unmanned aircraft systems.
Dozens of colleges with aviation programs now offer courses in unmanned aerial systems, and several universities have recently added majors. The University of North Dakota was first, in 2009, and has about 120 students in the field. Last May, Kansas State University Salina graduated its first student with a Bachelor of Science in unmanned aircraft systems. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University started offering the degree in 2011 at its Daytona Beach, Fla., campus, and now has 89 U.A.S. majors. More programs are rolling out: Indiana State University plans to offer a major this spring.
Today, the biggest use of drones is by the military and the Central Intelligence Agency, which operate hundreds of them around the world. Only military personnel pilot armed drones.
At the moment, there are hardly any remote-controlled vehicles in American civil airspace. But the Federal Aviation Administration is under instructions from Congress to fully integrate them by 2015. Already, regulations for lightweight craft are being rolled out, as the F.A.A. works through new technologies to secure radio communications and avoid collisions.But government contractors do much of the scouting in advance, conducting surveillance missions over countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Mr. Taylor, who graduated in August, has been offered a job by a private contractor and is waiting for his security clearance.
The agency predicts that 10,000 remote-piloted planes will be operating in American airspace within five years.
“It’s a rising new frontier of aviation,” said Andrew R. Lacher, a researcher at the Mitre Corporation, a nonprofit organization that does extensive work for the government on drones. “Just about anything you do with aviation today,” he said, “you can do with unmanned aerial vehicles in the future.”
Just don’t call them drones. People in the business dislike that word, which brings to mind a robot with no pilot; there is a pilot, but not on board.
Equipped with cameras and other sensors, drones of the future will report back on traffic, survey land, inspect pipelines and transmission lines, conduct border surveillance and other law enforcement work, assess damage after storms and earthquakes, and even spot fish.
Majoring in the field is certainly not required but it’s a competitive advantage. Some students will go on to earn six figures, depending on skill level required, said Alexander J. Mirot, coordinator of Embry-Riddle’s U.A.S. program. Size and complexity of the aircraft vary greatly. “Some weigh only a few pounds,” he said. “Others are the size of an A-10” attack plane.
Experts predict that unmanned vehicles will offer better job prospects than the airlines. Indeed, drone operators could end up flying full-size airplanes. Britain has been experimenting with a jet flown regionally by remote control, although it has “safety captains” on board and no passengers. Some foresee the current standard — two pilots in the cockpit — replaced by one on board and one on the ground and, eventually, both on the ground. Benjamin M. Trapnell, an associate professor at the University of North Dakota, compares it to the transition to elevators without human operators. Cargo planes would most likely come first.
WHAT YOU’LL STUDY
Expect to be immersed in complex science, technology and engineering. “The components of that degree span so many disciplines,” said Daryl S. Davidson, the executive director of the Auvsi Foundation, an arm of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “It’s not just aerospace engineering, it’s not just mechanical engineering. It’s electrical engineering, mechatronics, sensor and human factors.”
Any aviation major studies aerodynamics, propulsion and other systems of a plane. Students specializing in unmanned systems also learn about the peculiarities of drones: the telemetry, including antenna design, that links them to the ground-based pilot, as well as the sensors they will design and operate to monitor crops, pipelines, power lines and other targets. They will design ground-control stations from which they will maneuver the aircraft, and program drones to perform complex tasks on autopilot. They will have to launch them from a runway or catapult or, like a javelin, by human arm, and recover them after flight; pilots may be far away and never see the aircraft they control.
Because of restrictions on drones in airspace, the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle fly only small models within line of sight, but they make extensive use of simulators. Kansas State has permission to fly from an airport to a nearby weapons range. Most students will also learn to fly a conventional airplane, and many will earn a commercial license (the University of North Dakota requires one).
WHAT YOU’LL PAY
At Embry-Riddle, one of the country’s most prestigious private flight schools, tuition and fees are $30,720. Embry-Riddle has two tracks, one requiring a private pilot’s license, which costs $50,000 to $60,000 depending on how much flight time (and expense) students already have under their belts. Students in either track are likely to spend another $1,200 for time in drone simulators.
Programs at state universities will be far less pricey: between $7,000 and $8,000 for residents, and between $17,000 and $20,150 for nonresidents. But there are add-ons: North Dakota’s commercial license, including instrument and multiengine ratings, comes to an estimated $55,695. Kansas State students must obtain a private pilot’s license with instrument rating, at an estimated cost of $12,960. Students can get further certifications, including multiengine or instrument, said Natalie Blair, a spokeswoman for Kansas State, “and many do because the skills they learn help with situational awareness, which is an integral part of remotely piloting an aircraft.”
YOU’RE MAJORING IN WHAT?
Students may face a raised eyebrow when they tell friends and family what they’re studying. Some think drones are glorified model airplanes. “I get that all the time,” said Mr. Boutain, who graduates this year from North Dakota. He mimicked a friend: “ ‘U.A.S.? What is that?’ ”
Others think of their deadly use, targeting insurgents in foreign lands, or potential to invade privacy. “A lot of people say it is something they would be worried about,” Ms. Wallace said, scoffing at the idea. “Everybody thinks it’s going to be looking into their window.”
In fact, besides their mundane industrial and commercial uses, drones can be used by police agencies to follow vehicles and people.
Mr. Davidson of the Auvsi Foundation acknowledged that students were entering a field with some negative connotations. In October, the University of North Dakota set up the first research compliance committee, a kind of review board to address the social issues raised by drones, like security of private data.
“Kudos to North Dakota that they’re anticipating questions that maybe are whispered now but they’ll be asked publicly a year from now,” he said. “With any new form of technology, you can use it for good or you can use it for bad.”
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