Russell Peters is a junior at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University , one of the top U.S. flight-training schools, who has no intention of taking to the skies.
Standing next to a 3-foot-wide (91.4 centimeters) plane that searches for objects on the ground using artificial intelligence, he talks about how his fascination with robotics led him to the Daytona Beach, Florida, campus to prepare for a career building and operating drones.
Alex Mirot, a retired Air Force major who piloted Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft built by General Atomics Inc. of San Diego, coordinates Embry-Riddle’s degree programme in Unmanned Aerial Systems Science. In less than one year, 75 students have enrolled to major or minor in the subject, he said.
“To me this is kind of amazing,” Mirot said in an office festooned with photos, ribbons and other memorabilia from his 10 years in the military. “That’s how popular this is as a technology.”
The program offers two tracks for students: training on simulators to be drone operators, or non-pilot roles such as operating remote-controlled cameras and managing unmanned- aircraft programs.
Students can take classes in how unmanned systems work, robotics, business management, operating remote sensors such as cameras and radars, and drone simulator training, Mirot said. They must take courses in electrical engineering and programming, he said.
Across campus at the Department of Mechanical, Civil and Engineering Sciences, students like Peters study how to build and design unmanned aircraft, Charles Reinholtz, the department chairman, said in an interview.
The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks established a drone-study major more than two years ago and has graduated 17 students, Benjamin M. Trapnell, an aeronautics professor who developed the program, said in a phone interview.
Graduates can expect to make starting salaries of at least $50,000, and perhaps double that if they accept jobs in dangerous locations, Trapnell said. That dwarfs entry-level salaries as airline pilots, which can be below $20,000, according to government data.
He said his graduates, who must obtain FAA commercial pilots’ licenses, have landed jobs with drone operators and manufacturers such as the Aeronautical & Space Systems division of Information Systems Laboratories Inc. of San Diego and AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems, which is owned by Textron Inc. of Providence, Rhode Island.