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Aviation schools preparing future drone pilots

January 17, 2014

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Forget about flying in the clouds. Many new future pilots won’t ever leave the ground.

That realization has created a new opportunity for aviation schools and students, as universities add programs to teach students to fly unmanned aircraft, more commonly known as drones, by using only video monitors, a keyboard and mouse.

The University of North Dakota started the first unmanned aircraft degree program in the nation in 2009 with five students. Today, 120 students are in the program, the Associated Press reported. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Kansas State University have added similar programs, while dozens of other schools offer some courses in unmanned aircraft systems.

Drones are best known for their use by the U.S. military, but the potential applications for other unmanned aircraft are endless. So it’s not surprising that the job market for drone operators is expected to increase rapidly once it becomes legal for drones to fly in U.S. airspace, which could happen in the next few years.

Already the Federal Aviation Administration has picked six institutions to operate test locations, which will explore how to set safety standards, train and certify ground-based pilots, ensure that the aircraft will operate safely even if radio links are lost and, most important, develop alternatives to the traditional method for avoiding collisions, the New York Times reported. Integrating the aircraft into the nation’s airspace, set by Congress for 2015, will be phased-in gradually.

The FAA projects some 7,500 commercial drones could be aloft within five years of getting widespread access to American airspace, the AP reported.

An industry commissioned study last spring predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress loosens restrictions on U.S. skies. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.

Many students who grew up wanting to be commercial airline pilots are changing their major to unmanned systems. Among them are self-proclaimed computer geeks who don't mind staying in one place.

"Airplanes are cool and fun and all that stuff," Logan Lass, a UND student, told the AP. "But it's my particular personality that I don't really want to fly big jets. Growing up around computers and having a love for aviation, I figured the best option was to combine the two …”