UAS Degree Programs Growing with Market (UPDATED)

By Sarah Sicard
By 2025, there could be more than 100,000 jobs in the unmanned aerial systems industry, according to a 2013 economic impact report performed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. This, in addition to the manufacturing, maintenance, sales and operations of drones, is estimated to generate $82 billion by the same year.

As interest in military and commercial usage of these systems continues to grow, so too will the need for experienced sensor operators and pilots. To fill those jobs, a number of universities across the country have launched unmanned aerial systems pilot and research degree programs, which focus on everything from war fighting to package delivery and fire fighting. 

Upon completion of these programs, students will be able to leverage their degrees into successful military and — industry leaders hope soon — commercial UAS careers, said program instructors.

Though the military continues to have increasingly high numbers of job opportunities in unmanned aerial systems operations, commercial drone careers have not been able to expand as quickly. Privacy and safety issues concerning how UAS can interact securely with manned aircraft in the national airspace may further delay the 2014 end-year congressional deadline to set regulations for small unmanned aerial systems.

However, industry leaders are still waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to give industry the go-ahead to use drones in national airspace.

The FAA was expected to publish draft regulations for small, unmanned aircraft before the end of December. Although it is not certain, industry leaders are hopeful that upon its release the draft will also contain rules for commercial drone usage.

Many of these schools are anxiously waiting for the draft release, as programs are unable to expand without proper regulations, said Al Palmer, director of the University of North Dakota Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training.

Though the FAA missed the date to set overall rules for small unmanned aerial systems, it has increased the number of exceptions for UAS use, which will serve as a stepping stone toward integrating unmanned aircraft operations safely, said Michael Huerta, the FAA administrator.

Program directors at these schools are confident that when the FAA sets rules for small commercial drone usage, tens of thousands of jobs will open up for workers with niche skills that accompany UAS degrees.

Students who graduate from these programs and work in the industry now are paid roughly $50 an hour, and the potential jobs for drone pilots are only going to increase, Palmer said.

His program at John Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota was the first to offer an undergraduate degree program in unmanned aerial systems.

“We stood up a four-year degree program … that started in September 2009 with five students,” he said. Many of these classes began with small enrollment, but as the UAS market has expanded, so has the program. Now, more than 100 students are enrolled.

As that number has steadily increased, UND has invested more than $20 million to research UAS-related topics, in addition to constructing a number of new education and training facilities, he added.

“We opened up a training center on Grand Forks Air Force Base, and we were fortunate enough to … purchase a Predator Mission Aircraft Training System,” Palmer said. “We’re the only organization outside the military that has this type of training system.”

Although a majority of the students enrolled in UND’s program will not enter into active duty military careers, a large portion of the education and training that takes place there involves practicing with Air Force aircraft and systems at the Grand Forks Base.

A spokesperson from the Air Force said in a statement that currently it is not necessary for military recruits to have unmanned aircraft experience.

“When considering cadets for [a remotely piloted aircraft] position, there are no specific degree requirements for those positions,” said Col. Eric Wydra, Air Force reserve officers training corps commander.

However, one University of North Dakota student in the ROTC program said that having a degree in UAS studies would be highly beneficial to his career in the Air Force.

“Coming in with knowledge on any level is going to help,” said Elijah Lewis, a cadet who plans to join the Air Force after graduating with a degree in unmanned aerial systems.

Having UAS experience — particularly getting the 170 flight hours needed to obtain a private pilot’s license — will give him a major advantage in jobs working in unmanned aircraft operations, he said.

These university-level UAS programs give students the experience they need to work as pilots, operators or developmental team members, Palmer said.

Professors teaching the courses began their careers by serving in the military or working in the commercial industry as pilots of manned aircraft, and they have a wealth of knowledge of unmanned systems as a result of being involved in the early stages of UAS development, he said.

Alongside regular courses, UAS students at the University of North Dakota are required to obtain a commercial pilot’s license with instrument and multi-engine ratings.

 “What we do for the first two years is focus on the manned side of aviation,” Lewis said. “By the time we’re juniors, we have all of our ratings, and we are fully qualified pilots.”

After the second or third year in the program, students are able to begin operating unmanned aerial systems, he said.

Other colleges, however, have taken their programs in different directions. Schools like the University of Cincinnati have courses pertaining to unmanned systems, but they are structured as specialties under the engineering department. Though it does some work with the Air Force, the university focuses on commercial uses for unmanned aerial systems.

“We started off by doing graduate research,” but it has recently expanded to include more courses on education and training in UAS development and operations, said Kelly Cohen, professor of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.

The university is currently working to develop an unmanned systems minor under its aerospace engineering department.

Cohen said this would be available to engineering students and to those studying subjects like computer science.

In addition to conducting research, the program has in 2014 received funding from NASA to work on disaster relief with fire fighters in West Virginia, Cohen said.

With the support of the West Virginia Division of Forestry, the University of Cincinnati collaborated with the University of Toledo to use unmanned aerial vehicles to put out a controlled fire using its Surveillance for Intelligent Emergency Response Robotic Aircraft, according to a press release.

University officials are also working to gain FAA approval to have students’ UAS work certified at Ohio’s Wilmington Air Park, which will allow them to fly three different families of systems — including one for package-carrying, Cohen added.

This will permit them to prepare students for jobs with shipping companies like, which has begun head hunting for package-delivery UAS operators in preparation of the FAA’s ruling on small drone usage.

In the meantime, faculty at the university are focused on research, education and training. In the area of unmanned systems, those are the keys to successful integration of these aircraft into commercial airspace, Cohen said.

Students who have participated in UAS programs will develop an understanding of the best way to safely employ these systems, and that is where the University of Cincinnati has focused its attention, he added.

“By combining the emulation of human reasoning with the ability to adapt to different situations and perform well, we’ve come up with a decision support system that would allow these entities to, with human supervision, be able to ensure safety of operations,” he said.

Of the current UAS job market, Lewis said, “It’s expanding,” but “until the FAA comes out with more legislature on commercial unmanned aircraft … it’s kind of in a hole right now.”

Until then, Cohen said, “We are trying to have our students engage in problems that push the envelope, looking into different techniques [and] decision-making.”

There are dozens more schools across the country that have begun to establish UAS programs and courses over the last several years.

Like UND, Kansas State University Salina has a UAS degree program and is one of very limited number of schools that has authorization to fly UAS in the national airspace.

Most notably, Kansas State University Salina was chosen by the FAA to perform airworthiness certification testing for small unmanned aircraft systems — a project that is helping to determine whether the FAA’s standards need further development, said Michael Most, UAS academic program lead at the university.

Its fleet consists of more than 20 gas and electric-powered units, as well as single and multi-rotor fixed-wing aircraft. 

A number of other schools have specialized programs and courses pertaining to UAS under alternate departments, according to a brief from Development Counsellors International. Some of those include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Indiana State University, North Dakota State University, Texas A&M University and University of Nevada Reno. Oklahoma State University is the first institution to have established full graduate-level degrees specific to UAS engineering.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that the University of Cincinnati was looking to get certified at Wilmington Airport in North Carolina.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Robotics

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