Drone Studies: U.S. Colleges Offer Majors in Unmanned Aircraft

Compiled by Jessica Santina
June 10, 2013

It wasn't so long ago that if you wanted to be a pilot, you had to get on board an airplane. But thanks to a growing number of U.S. universities, community colleges and technical schools offering courses and programs in drones, it's now possible to fly without ever leaving the ground.

Last year, roughly 150 colleges offered courses in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones -- though most would prefer you don't use that word, which carries negative connotations of weapons-carrying, predatory robotic spy vehicles used by the military.

In fact, they aren't robots. They are fully piloted aircraft. It's just that their pilots aren't on board. But unlike hobbyists' radio-controlled planes, which can only be experienced while standing on the ground and watching them fly, the sophisticated technology of UAS means that drones' uses are innumerable, and quite positive.

Transformative Technology

Ranging in size from only a few pounds to that of a full-scale attack plane, drones are equipped with cameras and sensors that gather sophisticated data. They've transformed war by providing instant intelligence to pilots located on the ground, far away from danger. But because of their technological capabilities, drones have potential to transform other industries by going where people simply can't.

According to articles in TIME and The New York Times, they can provide land survey data to engineers, inspect pipelines or electrical transmission lines, enhance border patrols, assess damage from natural disasters, aid law enforcement in crime scene assessment, collect detailed agricultural data, enable Hollywood producers to gather aerial footage, and even change the way reporters gather data for news stories. And, of course, they'll take hobby-level radio control to the next level.

Such limitless uses mean that job prospects could likely boom in this field. The FAA expects to see 10,000 remote-piloted planes operating in American airspace within five years, reports The New York Times. And the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says the U.S. pilotless aircraft industry is expected to add more than 23,000 jobs between 2012 and 2027, the Huffington Post reported. Tom Kenville, founder of Unmanned Applications Institute International, says they're high-paying jobs, too, with drone pilots earning $50,000 to $120,000 per year.

Schools Launch Drone Studies in Droves

It's these prospects that have caused so many colleges to hop on board. The University of North Dakota was really a pilot in the field, having begun offering its first UAS courses in 2008, and launching the nation's first full-fledged, four-year program in 2009.

Since then, other schools have followed suit. Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University began offering a similar four-year program in 2011, and Kansas State University Salina graduated its first bachelor-degree student in UAS last year. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, offers a three-semester technical certificate program that provides students with training in mission-planning, data management and drone maintenance. Arizona's Cochise College is putting together a UAS program, as is Arizona State University. Northwestern Michigan College currently offers a series of electives in UAS but is working to expand its program. And Northland Community and Technical College in Minnesota received a multimillion-dollar federal grant to start its drone program.

Although programs vary widely in scope, The New York Times says students can expect to study complex science, technology and engineering (aerospace, mechanical and electrical). Standard aviation concepts are usually covered, such as aerodynamics and plane systems, but the specifics of drones are, of course, included. This covers telemetry, which deals with the antennas connecting the planes to the pilots and the sensors that monitor targets. Students may even design ground-control stations and practice virtually launching and recovering drones. Most schools rely on simulators for this, since the FAA currently has tight restrictions on drone flight. Some students may even be able to learn to fly commercial planes and earn commercial licenses (required at the University of North Dakota).

Though the industry is expected to take off dramatically in the next few years, as the FAA begins easing restrictions on drone use, controversy still surrounds the topic. To stay ahead of the curve, the University of North Dakota set up the first research compliance committee to address the social issues raised by drones, such as privacy and monitoring.

But despite the career prospects, students enrolling in UAS programs can likely also expect some strange looks from peers, who may still think drones are glorified radio-controlled toys.

"Colleges adding new courses in drone design, marketing," Cronkite News Service via azstarnet.com, May 14, 2013, Mary Shinn
"Colleges Offer Courses And Training For Flying Unmanned Drones," huffingtonpost.com, Posted March 9, 2012, Updated May 24, 2012, Tyler Kingkade
"Drone Home," time.com, Feb. 11, 2013, Lev Grossman
"Majoring in Drones: Higher Ed Embraces Unmanned Aircraft," business.time.com, March 18, 2013, Victor Luckerson
"New 'Drone Studies' Major Has Graduates Starting At $120,000 A Year," businessinsider.com, March 28, 2012, Robert Johnson
"So You Want to Be a U.A.S. Pilot? Just Don't Call It a Drone," nytimes.com, Feb. 1, 2013, Matthew L. Wald