Are Drone Studies the Next Boom in Tech Jobs?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as drones, command an increasingly ubiquitous presence in the 21st century: they're a fixture in our farms, backyards, and even the White House. Now, drones are invading our universities.
Are Drone Studies the Next Boom in Tech Jobs?
Jonathan Zhou

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), also known as drones, are commanding an increasingly ubiquitous presence in the 21st century: they're a fixture on our farms, in backyards, and even at the White House. Now, drones are invading our universities.

In late August, Sinclair Community College and Ohio State will host the first drones summit, an event dedicated to helping researchers keep up with the latest development in the newfangled technology. The summit comes just a few years after American universities created drone studies as a technical field that students can major in.

A Bachelor of Science program in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) was first offered at Kansas State University—Salina, in 2008, funded as part of a relief package for future disaster prevention. A UAS major was created at the University of North Dakota in 2009, and similar programs have since spread from the Midwest to across America, and the world.

Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida developed a program in 2011, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks started offering a minor in UAS in the fall of 2014.

The University of Southern Denmark is in the process of creating a two-year master's, calling it Europe's first drone studies program.

But forget about images of classrooms out in a field with everyone's flying drones. As with most technical fields, actual training in UAS isn't that hands-on. When students get the chance to practice piloting drones at all, they're more likely to do so on a simulator than with the thing itself. Much of the curriculum deals with how to write and use UAS software, and with aerospace regulations.

Hands-on education in drone school would happen more if it weren't for the diversity of drone manufacturers, who produce autopilot systems that are dramatically different from each other. Although some expect this problem to subside when Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations force autopilot systems to standardize.

Profession on the Verge

UAS programs are currently playing catch-up with the market, where the rapid expansion of drone-related activities has outpaced the supply of drone pilots, who, like petroleum engineers a decade ago, command a hefty wage premium as a result of the shortage. Programs boast an average industry salary of more than $100,000—but that won't last forever.

"A lot of people come out of the military with drone experience, so the supply of qualified people is growing pretty fast," said Ro Bailey, associate director at the Alaska Center for UAS Integration.

On the other hand, demand could grow dramatically when the FAA comes out with a regulatory regime palatable to commercial drone activities, which are for the most part banned at the moment.

In December, the FAA said that commercial drone regulations will be available in 2017, at the earliest. In the meantime, businesses that want to use drones have to apply for case-by-case exemptions from the FAA, which has issued 246 thus far.

One worry for American graduates is that in this interim period, the drone industry might take off in other countries with less restrictive regulations.

Germany and Switzerland have both experimented with long-distance drone delivery, which would be banned in the United States even after the proposed regulations are ratified. If those countries develop faster, the locus on the new industry could form in Europe, not the United States.

The rules the FAA is looking at require drones to be within the line-of-sight of the pilot, which effectively rules out any delivery program, such as Amazon's proposed Prime Air, which would use drones to offer delivery within 30 minutes of ordering.

"Overly prescriptive restrictions are likely to have the unintended effect of stifling innovation and, over time, will fail to offer any corresponding safety benefit as small UAS technology evolves," Amazon wrote in a recent comment to the FAA.

The drone industry is still in its early stages, where the market is more or less a free for all between startups, which makes the regulatory climate especially important.

"Many of the students I talk to want to start their companies, they're going down their entrepreneurial side," Bailey said.

Still, the United States appears to have an edge in the drones industry at the moment, largely in part to the surfeit of ex-military drone pilots and the strength of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. For instance, when the Swiss Postal system rolled out its inaugural drone delivery system, it partnered with American drone startup Matternet.

Growing Use of Drones

The reason for the incredible growth of the drone industry stems, naturally, from the practical application of drones. From the monitoring of farm crops and precision pesticide dispersal to recording marriage proposals from a vantage point, drones seem to have an endless number of uses. It's not surprising that rent-a-drone startups have appeared on the scene too.

A 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems–not exactly an unbiased source–predicts that three years after drones are authorized to fly in the National Airspace System, the industry will have an economic impact of $13.6 billion, and will create 100,000 jobs by 2025.

The prognosis may appear optimistic–the association has revised its predictions downward before–but they don't sound too far off in light of the valuations of some of the largest drone makers. DJI, the Chinese drone manufacturer, has recently sought another round of funding that would put its value at $10 billion.

"I think there's huge potential out there, if you're making a decision about your major now, by the time you come out there should be a huge demand," Bailey said.