One of my best friends has a four-year old who is crazy about planes, and I can’t wait until he graduates from middle school and I can say to him, “I want to say one word to you, just one word. Are you listening? Drones.”
And then I can tell him about the rapidly growing number of drone educational programs. If you want to get into the drone business you can take courses in drone piloting, in drone maintenance, and even in drone design. And since drones are rapidly being adopted around the world, you might even be able to take your drone studies abroad—although that might be a problem when you graduate and try and get a security clearance to work for the US military, still the world’s largest drone user.
But drones aren’t just rapidly replacing humans in dangerous missions in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They’re also being used in environmental research missions that used to be performed by manned aircraft, everything from monitoring weather and the atmosphere and mapping forest fires, to mapping geologic fault lines and disaster areas. And more drones and more missions mean an increased demand for operators, maintainers, and designers.
Many new and developing drone missions can’t be flown by military personnel and need civilian operators. So now academia—often in cooperation with the private sector and the military—has stepped in to fill the gap. You can find everything from minors that complement traditional aviation degrees to full-blown and fully accredited bachelors, masters, and now even PhD programs focused on drone use and technology. Here’s the run down on some of your options—and some background on the links these programs have to defense contractors and the military:
- University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, North Dakota), Department of Aviation
BS in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations
UND’s program markets itself as the first bachelors in drone piloting. The program is essentially similar to UND’s BS in Commercial Aviation with almost all of the electives filled by courses in unmanned aerial systems. Overall, UND has seven specialized drone courses. UND also runs an unmanned aerial vehicle training center at Granf Forks Air Force Base, which is partially funded with state monies.
- Northland Community and Technical College (Thief River Falls, Minnesota) Aviation Maintenance Technology Program
Unmanned Aerial Systems Maintenance Technician Certificate
Thief River Falls is only about 40 miles east of Grand Forks, site of UND’s BS in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations, and the two programs are featured together in background created by the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation and the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. NCTC (no direct relation to any other organization using that acronym) has six specialized drone maintenance courses, the most of any program.
- Oklahoma State University (Stillwater, Oklahoma), Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
MS and PhD in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)
OSU is one of the latest schools to offer a degree program, and is the first to offer a PhD. Both the MS and PhD programs are very similar to tradition MS and PhD programs in Aerospace Engineering, with the addition of two specialized drone courses. MAE runs the program in partnership with OSU’s University Multispectral Laboratories (UML) a “a government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation,” which is funded in part by a five-year, $44 million contract with the US Navy.
- Cranfield University (Bedfordshire, United Kingdon), School of Engineering
MSc by Research in UAS Platforms and Ground Control Station
Not many details are available about Cranfield’s program, and since it is a MSc by Research there aren’t specific drone courses per se. But one thing is clear—non UK/EU citizens need not apply, which isn’t surprising considering the amount of defense research and study that goes on at Cranfield.
- University of Southampton (Southampton, United Kingdom), School of Engineering Sciences
MSc Unmanned Vehicle Systems Design
Southhampton’s MSc program is a taught program (as opposed to a research program like Cranfield’s) which gives students opportunities to design both air and underwater unmanned vehicles. It is open to international students. And unlike many programs it advertises its industry affiliations quite openly, citing ties to British aerospace and sensor companies BAE Systems (makers of the MANTIS and the TARANIS), Rolls-Royce (maker of the engines for the Global Hawk), QintetiQ (maker of the high altitude long endurance (HALE) solar-powered Zephyr UAV, which can stay aloft for fourteen days at a time) and Cobham (which makes everything from sensors to new systems for autonomous air-to-air refueling).
General Drone Know-How
- Embry Riddle Aeronautical University Daytona Beach Campus (Daytona Beach, Florida), College of Aviation
Minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems
This program can be taken with an major at ERAU, which include many non-flying programs, but the minor alone will probably not get you certified to fly so you should probably go for a an aviation degree if you want to fly. Overall ERAU has five drone courses.
- Indiana State University (Terra Haute, Indiana), Department of Aviation Technology
Minor in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Like ERAU, ISU’s program is intended to complement an aviation degree, and the program prospectus notes that a private pilot certificate is “encouraged”. The program has two drones courses.
- Kansas State University, Salina Campus (Salina, Kansas), Department of Aviation
Unmanned Aircraft Systems program
K-State’s program is the smallest of this group, with only three courses. But it also boasts an Aerosonde Mark 4.7 drone, the first unmanned aerial vehicle to cross the Atlantic Ocean—and links to the Kansas National Guard, the Kansas Air National Guard, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.