News Column

Drone Science Is an Increasingly Attractive Major

January 3, 2014

By Sydney Kashiwagi, USA TODAY

College students are seeking out universities that offer drone science majors.
College students are seeking out universities that offer drone science majors.

In March, 47-year-old Stephen Myers ditched the information technology company that he built from the ground up and went back to school.

His choice of study? Drone technology. He's now earning a specialized degree from the Unmanned Vehicle University in Arizona. Myers is taking an online course on how to control a drone's sensors and electronics, and he hopes to build a new commercial drone business.

"I think that something a lot of people don't understand is that when people think of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), they think of drones spying on them," said Myers, who lives in Naples, Fla. "What they don't realize, or what they don't understand, are all the other applications."

Drones are already being tested by companies such as Amazon, which hope to use them to deliver packages, and Domino's in the United Kingdom even wants them to deliver pizza. "There is almost no industry that you can think of that can't benefit from UAVs," said Myers.

The Federal Aviation Administration just named six teams across the nation that will host the development and testing of drones to fly safely in the same skies as commercial airliners.

The announcement represents a major milestone toward the goal of sharing the skies by the end of 2015, in what is projected to become an industry worth billions of dollars. But technical hurdles and privacy concerns remain in a regulatory program that's already a year behind schedule.

Courses via webinar

Myers launched his previous IT career two decades ago during a time when computers were revolutionizing the world. Now, he's getting ready for a new digital revolution.

When Myers turns on his computer every Saturday afternoon he tunes into an online webinar course taught by a former Air Force technical director, and embarks on a simulated real world drone mission.

During his mission he applies math and physics to understand how to capture images on the ground while controlling the vehicle's center of gravity, signal-to-noise ratio and what to do if an engine fails.

"It is very technical, but very technical in a sense that it is applied math and physics that you take to apply to real world missions," said Myers.

But the new field of study brings a new field of controversy. Digital watchdog groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center warn that because the Federal Aviation Administration has still not outlined any specific privacy standards, the drone industry could lead to "Big Brother" in the sky.

"For every drone in the air, we're adding at least one more camera," said Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC's Domestic Surveillance Project. "It's going to be a continuing issue, because the industry is growing."

In March, Stepanovich testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to guide them on what she thinks are necessary privacy considerations that the FAA should include in their final plan in 2015. She says that the FAA needs to make databases that keep track of all unmanned vehicle pilots, and have restrictions on how drones can retain and share information, before the federal agency finalizes its policy.

By 2015, thousands of drones are expected to be flying above America. Teal Group, a defense forecasting company, predicts that drones will become a billion-dollar industry.

Getting a Drone Degree

So, in order to keep up with this growing industry, universities around the country are starting drone degree programs. The University of North Dakota, Kansas State University Salina and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University are just a few among the growing list that offer drone degree programs.

Dr. Jerry LeMieux, a former military fighter pilot and Delta Air Lines pilot, is the founder of the Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix. Students can get certified to pilot a drone, learn to become a professional aerial photographer, or get a master's or Ph.D. in UAV systems engineering.

"Thousands and thousands of small UAVs are going to be in the sky, because everyone wants to do this as a business or even help their existing business," said LeMieux. "They may want to use these vehicles as tools to help their business, or they may want to start their own business to provide a service."

LeMieux's university is taught completely online, and it has graduated about 500 students from around the world who have gone on to use drones to take pictures of endangered rhinoceroses in Africa, to conduct search-and-rescue missions during wildfire disasters and even to survey farmland from the sky.

LeMieux's students are paving the way for an industry that will create 70,000 new U.S. jobs, according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The non-profit research group predicts those jobs will come within the first three years, with 20,000 more by 2025.

Farmers, wildlife service members, photographers and filmmakers are among the professionals who LeMieux says have expressed interest in using drones to help their businesses.


But Stepanovich warns there are still issues that need to be addressed. "Where you're collecting information on individuals, that's where there's a risk. ... We're putting a lot of surveillance equipment in the air," she said.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has asked the FAA to have better privacy protections in place before Amazon starts delivering packages via drones.

"Before drones start delivering packages, we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public. Convenience should never trump constitutional protections," Markey said in a statement.

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: Copyright 2014 USA TODAY

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