A growing number of US universities now offer degree programs for students hoping to study the military technology of the future: drones. Flying an unmanned aerial device is now a viable career in a world of growing surveillance and fewer job options.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida became the first American university to offer postgraduate education in drone warfare this autumn, opening a program that promises students job security right after school - when many of their friends could be moving back in with their parents.
Drones are most often in the headlines for eliminating suspected terrorists in Yemen and regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and more controversially for inadvertently killing civilians in those countries. But the technology has also become increasingly popular with police patrolling international borders, environmentalists studying oceanic regions, and meteorologists observing hurricane patterns.
Students who complete the six-month training program at Embry-Riddle will graduate with a master’s degree and job prospects offering a starting salary of US$150,000 a year.
“We’re trying to prepare our students so they’re ready to operate at the highest levels,” Dan Maccharella, department chair of aeronautical sciences at Embry-Riddle, told AP. “It’s going to take off like a rocket. We had students go through the program as fast as they could to get out there.”
Other schools, while not offering a master’s program, do offer drone training classes. Drone pilots can earn anywhere between $50,000 and $120,000 a year, said Jeb Bailey, who trained at Northwestern Michigan College. He told The Daily that for a student who is approaching graduation and swimming in college loans, the job often comes down to simple math.
“The idea of going to Afghanistan and paying off all my loans – that’s very attractive,” Bailey said. “In an airlines career path you don’t expect to make a whole lot until you’ve been in the industry 20 years.”
A spokesman for Unmanned Applications Institute International, an aerial technology advocacy group, said the “pilotless aircraft industry” is expected to create more than 23,000 American jobs over the next 15 years.
Congress and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have yet to approve laws that would allow private drones to fly freely over American soil - but if and when they do, drones proponents say the job market will explode.
“I didn’t get into flying airplanes to do this, but I fell into it because it was lucrative,” John Bounds, a 2006 graduate of Embry-Riddle who now serves as a flight instructor, told AP. “The salary this experience offered was competitive with what I could make as a pilot with 15 years of experience.”