U.S. unmanned aircraft, or drones, have been taking to the skies since the Air Force first developed them in the 1950s and 60s. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has chosen six U.S. sites for testing and researching unmanned aircraft, and Congress hopes that by 2015, they will be integrated into the U.S. airspace. According to the New York Times, privately-owned drones the size of tiny helicopters could be used to inspect broken power lines, and styrofoam planes could fly over fields to look for agriculture pests and help determine better farming practices.
But the unmanned aircraft industry is relatively young compared to that of manned airplanes and helicopters, says L. D. Chen, director of engineering and computing sciences at Texas A & M University, Corpus Christi. TAMU-CC is one of the FAA’s six chosen sites, and will work with the administration to research the best ways to control a drone’s guidance, control, and recovery systems.
The FAA also chose the University of Alaska system and a collaboration between the University of Maryland, Rutgers University, and Virginia Tech.
The designation “carries with it requirements to support research and testing efforts that lead to future regulations governing the use of unmanned aerial systems, especially in the commercial arena,” according to a University of Maryland press release.
Integrating the aircraft could mean huge job growth as well, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which predicts that drones could create more than 100,000 new jobs by 2025, and over 70,000 of those jobs will open up in the first three years of airspace integration.
Even without FAA’s help, universities around the country are introducing new classes and programs of study to get engineering students involved.
This month, the University of Nevada, Reno started a minor program in unmanned aircraft research that combines elements of computer science, electrical, and mechanical engineering classes. UNR plans on adding three new faculty positions to focus on the manufacture, robotics and autonomous systems of unmanned aircraft, according to local online news outlet RGJ.com. The university also already has two industry partnerships — one with company Nevada Nanotech Systems to develop a robotic flying vehicle that can be used to monitor environments in rural or remote areas, and with Drone America, a local unmanned aircraft company that is looking to use them as tools for natural resource and environmental research, according to the news story.
In Ohio, Sinclair Community College and Kent State University are already training students for jobs in unmanned aircraft. The schools are the only ones in the state to have formal unmanned aircraft programs, although many Ohio schools partake in related research, according to the News-Herald. Sinclair’s certificate
program is ideal for students seeking entry-level jobs in unmanned aircraft, according to the article, and plans to add a two-year program after the FAA’s plans are approved.
South River High School in Maryland is taking drone education even further by offering a course in which students learn to make and fly their own quadcopters. Students use a 3D printer to create a small camera that can be placed on the quadcopters and take photos as it’s flying, according to Popular Science. Students team up in groups of three and take on the roles of pilot, who controls the drone, observer, who watches and monitors it, and a safety officer, who informs other team members of potential hazards in the machine’s path. The class is funded by an Annapolis-based communications and engineering company.
The News-Herald quoted Ryan Palm, a 31-year-old flight attendant from Vandalia, Oh. and a Sinclair Community College student, as saying, “It looks like this technology will be the next big thing, and I want to be ahead of the curve.”