Commercial unmanned aircraft training takes off in the US
The next generation of commercial pilots in the United States need never step foot in the aircraft they operate, if the programme at the Unmanned Vehicle University, located in Arizona, is anything to go by.
The university is the only US facility to offer postgraduate engineering degrees in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) systems. It’s the first facility of its kind – similar to a police academy but focused on drones and taught online.
For an annual fee of $64,000 (€47,800), students are promised training in robotics, UAV design, sensors and flight tests and communications. Coursework is done through web seminars and some hands-on flight training at a lakeside resort in Arizona. Teaching is divided into 12-week modules - a master’s degree requires eight completed courses, a PhD 10.
“There’s a growing budget for acquisition and development of unmanned systems,” said university director Jerry LeMieux, a retired US Air Force colonel with combat and commercial pilot experience. “Universities are getting more and more money to do research, and I’m hoping we’ll be the number one school when you want technical training in unmanned systems.”
After LeMieux opened the facility last July, five students enrolled. It now has 300 MSc and PhD candidates, a figure Le Mieux says will double next autumn.
The UAV market is growing into a trillion-dollar global industry, with the US market for civilian and commercial drones predicted to reach about $300 million in the next decade.
UAVs have been the most dynamic growth sector of the world aerospace industry in the past decade, according to Teal Group, aerospace and defence market analysts based in Virginia. It predicts the US will account for 77 per cent of worldwide spending on UAV technology over the next decade, and about 69 per cent of the procurement.
Anticipating a domestic boom, three other US universities, in North Dakota, Kansas and Florida, offer primary degrees in drone operation. Dozens of other colleges with aviation programmes also offer minor courses in UAVs.
LeMieux’s facility takes this training a step further, specialising in UAV engineering rather than operations.
The university’s staff list includes former pilots of combat drones such as Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Government contractors do much of the scouting for military-deployed drones, conducting surveillance missions over countries such as Afghanistan. Most jobs flying drones are currently military-related, but universities and colleges expect that to change by 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is due to publish regulations for UAVs in domestic airspace. Once those regulations are in place, the FAA predicts that 10,000 commercial drones will be operating in the US within five years.
On the FAA’s most recent list of institutions seeking approval to fly UAVs, 47 of the 358 are universities and colleges, with only 15 police departments and sheriffs’ offices included.
Upon graduation, said Le Mieux, his students are likely to get job placements in major companies developing UAVs, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.