|A DJI S800 “Spreading Wings” hexacopter with a GoPro HERO3 camera. Photo by Mark Colborn
As small unmanned aircraft systems become more reliable, less expensive and more widely accepted among the populace, organizations that previously could not afford manned aircraft may show interest in drone use.
Prospective operators and maintainers will need training. Currently, there are few standards, and manufacturer training varies wildly. Only a handful of colleges worldwide offer UAS degree programs, but that number is growing.
U.S. colleges are leading the charge. Cochise College near Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and Central Oregon Community College, for example, each offer an associate of applied science in UAS. Several four-year schools (such as Indiana State University and the University of Nevada, Reno) allow students to minor in the field. Others offer classes as electives to degree courses like aerospace or mechanical engineering and robotics.
Most degree programs require students to obtain manned aircraft ratings, focusing secondarily on drone piloting skills. Several U.S. universities participate in UAS research, but do not yet offer UAS degree programs. These include the University of New Mexico, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and the University of Cincinnati.
In 2009, the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences became the first U.S. college to offer a four-year UAS operations degree. Based on a commercial aviation degree, it includes courses in drones, ground systems that support them, communications and control and sensor system operations. The school is at the forefront of UAS research.
Alan Frazier, associate professor of aviation at that university, told R&WI that the degree is pilot-centric since “smooth and safe integration of UAS into the national airspace system is best accomplished” by operators with a well-rounded aviation background. Each graduate receives an FAA commercial pilot certificate with airplane singe- and multi-engine and instrument ratings.
The second college to offer such programs, Kansas State University–Salinas, is also one of a handful of schools with FAA authorization to fly UAS in civil airspace.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers both bachelor’s and master’s UAS degrees. Bachelor’s students can choose between a pilot track, which leads to commercial and instrument ratings, or an operations one, which prepares students to act as sensor operators/technicians, observers, mission planners, comms support technicians or operations administrators.
Embry-Riddle’s degree offers students a background in several drone application areas, including surveillance and data collection and autonomous, hazardous, highly repetitive, long-duration and secure operations.
The University of Texas at Arlington offers interdisciplinary graduate and undergraduate certificate programs in unmanned vehicle technologies and applications, including drone systems. Students are enrolled in four major engineering programs.
Colorado Heli-Ops, in Broomfield, Colorado, is working with Morgan Community College to develop a UAS degree and certificate program. David Dziura, chief pilot and chief instructor, said the state approval process is expected to take some time and probably won’t be open for enrollment until late 2016. The college is seeking input from UAS operators to better design the program.
Dziura said Colorado Heli-Ops’ goal is to develop a comprehensive curriculum that incorporates airspace operations, weather, aviation risk management and aircraft performance at a high level. “We want our students to have a broader picture of the environment in which they will operate, even if their unmanned aircraft will not be subject to the same specific regulations,” said Dziura.
Two universities in England offer drone master’s degrees. The Liverpool John Moores University combines unmanned aerial technology with wildlife conservation in a program that enables students to learn how to operate drones while researching conservation in challenging environments. Cranfield University offers an autonomous vehicle dynamics and control degree.
The Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix may provide a quicker avenue to a drone career. Its UAS pilot training program includes three phases; 16 hr of web-based ground school, 10 hr on a PC-based drone simulator and 16 hr of individualized flight instruction at several locations across the U.S. The first and second phase can be completed by computer at home.
Three years ago, the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. created a three-day UAS operator course, which is taught by more than a half-dozen pioneering leaders in law enforcement drone operations. The course provides a law enforcement operator with a review of how to start a drone unit, define missions, choose equipment and outline applications.
The course also covers FAA policy and regulations; legal, privacy and management issues; and other facets of operating a successful drone program. The 24-hr course is a “must-have” for agencies wanting to start a UAS unit. Attendees include sworn and unsworn law enforcement personnel, as well as supervisors and managers charged with overseeing the safe operation of such units.
If anyone were to start fresh in attempting to find a place in aviation, one option would be to select a college or university offering an aerospace engineering or aviation management degree with a minor in career piloting (leading to both manned and unmanned aircraft ratings) and electives that emphasize computing and robotics design, systems development and repair and maintenance of drone systems.
Because the economic and operational aspects of this occupation are a business in every sense, business and marketing electives also would be useful. In writer Milian Kundera’s words, “Business has only two functions – marketing and innovation.”
Need To KnowStandards for UAS training are sparse.U.S. colleges lead in developing accredited instruction.Options include pilot, ops and engineering training.UAS Training
Drone Training Down Under
Formal UAS training in Australia is in its infancy, and no university-approved UAS degree program exists there, according to trade groups in that country.
According to the Australian Assn. for Unmanned Systems and the Australian Certified UAV Operators, prospective commercial operators must pass a private pilot license theory exam to receive a level-one remote pilot license. This exam includes basic aeronautical knowledge, meteorology, human factors, navigation and knowledge areas specific to drones. The practical component of the license course requires a student to build competency and confidence with a basic simulator, then to advance to practical flight training, preferably on the model to be flown commercially.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority approved the remote pilot training syllabus in late 2013. Australian Certified UAV Operators expects at least a dozen training schools to receive CASA certification by the end of this year. Organizations are allowed to perform drone “type” training and “non-type” training. Students should check whether a school is accredited through the Australian Skills Quality Authority.