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Drone Technology Advancements Yield New Education Opportunities

As unmanned aircraft take up a more permanent place in society, some schools are starting to get serious about drone degrees.

Across the country, academic institutions – from grade school to graduate school – are scrambling to incorporate richer science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculums. Meanwhile, a fifth letter in the acronym is on the horizon – D, for drones, as in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Already the University of North Dakota (UND) offers a degree program in drone technology, and last month, the University of Nevada said it is considering doing the same. 

Drones are growing increasingly commonplace – both in the headlines and in the skies. And when considering STEM education, drones have all four bases covered. While by and large the primary beneficiaries of drone technology continue to be military and law enforcement, the number of civilian drone manufacturers and operators is on the rise. 

Back in August, 2011 Government Technology ran a story titled 5 Emerging Technologies Soon to Hit the Government Market, one segment of which was a bit about UAVs. At the time, James Grimsley, president and CEO of Norman, Okla.-based Design Intelligence Inc., a company that develops technology for unmanned aerial systems, said that what the public conceives of when thinking of UAVs is “going to be changing in the next two to five years.”

In the nearly two years that have elapsed since then, it’s probably fair to say that Americans are much more familiar with drones today than they were previously. 

Grimsley also correctly predicted the rise of commercial applications for drone technology, citing package delivery as a possible scenario. “If we had planes that could handle 10 or 20 pounds of cargo that would fly to these small areas and regional hubs," he said, "we could move mail and very small cargo and packages."

On Wednesday, July 10, a Philadelphia dry cleaner illustrated Grimsley’s accuracy. The local NBC affiliate in the city ran a story about Manayunk Cleaners, a company that is using drones to deliver freshly laundered garments to its customers.  

In just a few decades UAVs have evolved from secret military weapons to vehicles capable of delivering pressed pants or hot pizza to your door. So it’s no wonder that some universities are aiming higher by developing new degree programs in drone technology. 

UND has offered an Bachelor of Science degree in UAS since 2009, becoming the first major university to do so. Since then, others including Embry-Riddle and the University of Nevada have begun, or are considering, doing the same. 

Ben Trapnell is an Associate Professor at the UND’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. He said education in drone technology is going to be vital to the burgeoning commercial/civil drone market.  

“The idea of a degree program began after completing some UAS research with the FAA and DoD. It was obvious to myself and [UND] Professor Douglas Marshall that any Civil UAS industry would need leaders educated in UAS operations,” he said, adding that the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences at UND has nearly five decades of experience in training young men and women to be pilots of manned aircraft – who need a strong foundation in all aspects of National Airspace System requirements. "It just seemed logical to bridge the gap between the engineer and operator to develop the leaders of an emerging Civil UAS industry.”

At UND, drone education goes far beyond the drones themselves. The school teaches students about related subjects such as telemetry and ground systems in order to prepare them to be leaders in a world where many believe seeing a drone will soon be an everyday occurrence. 

In the near term, Trapnell said he expects a boom in in UAS applications in law enforcement and the agricultural industries. Students enrolled in the UAS program will be well-positioned to take advantage of the boom -- and graduates already are.  

“To date, graduates have obtained jobs with numerous UAS manufacturers/operators that include stateside operations and test and evaluation positions, as well as working with civil contractors tasked to support DoD operations (unarmed) overseas,” Trapnell said. 

Looking west, the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development, the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance and the Nevada System of Higher Education put on a two-day event in late June called "The Titans of Industry Workshop," held in Las Vegas. From that meeting of government, education and industry heavyweights came the recommendation that the University of Nevada, Reno, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), explore offering education in drone technology, much like UND has done. 

Thomas Piechota, UNLV’s interim vice president for research and dean of the graduate college, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal on July 7 that they are “trying to evaluate” a minor program in drone science and engineering. 

For both Nevada and North Dakota, offering education in drone technology seems to be their way of preparing students to become future “titans of industry.” But their motivations are likely not entirely altruistic. The FAA is currently searching for six drone testing sites at locations around the country. States are already competing to curry the FAA’s favor, as becoming a test site promises to be economically lucrative. 

But even a cursory evaluation of the advance of drone technology suggests this is just the beginning. And whether one is pursuing drone technology for education or for economy, it appears the sky is, in fact, the limit.