Drone Training Services Open for Business

With the approaching deadline for the FAA publishing of a set of guidelines for the drone market, the aviation industry is busy preparing for its leadership position once the green light is given. Much has been written about the many companies experimenting with either the development or use of drones for various purposes, but it seems there is less written about the skills that will be needed to operate, support or design drones.

The FAA estimates that up to 7,500 small commercial drones might be in use by 2018, assuming the needed regulations are in place as predicted. This projection may be updated when the agency issues the proposed rules on small unmanned air systems (UAS) (or “drones”) later this year. This figure does not count an even greater number of these type aircraft being launched internationally. All of these entities will need to have properly-trained pilots, imagery analysts, payload specialists, communications/software/system/cybersecurity engineers, support and maintenance technicians, and manufacturing personnel to help assemble them. This mean that the industry will need various types of training in order for these personnel to be effective and qualified and they must do it in a hurry. (The FAA’s deadline to release its policy is approaching quickly.) Initially, we can expect that anyone with any experience with drones will earn quite a premium, but this demand should diminish as newly-trained people become available.

UAV (drone) pilot training is currently one of the most sought-after areas in aviation, as are drones themselves. Until lately, main use cases have centered almost exclusively on military and government needs, but it is the commercial sector that will drive the explosive growth in the years to come. One of the attractions of drone pilot training is the requirement of much less flight time compared to traditional flight training, not to mention greatly reduced tuition costs (in general).

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the trade group for this new industry, predicts that the economic benefit of UAS integration will be significant. They claim that in the first three years (after the FAA allows the commercial use of drones), more than 70,000 jobs will be created in the United States with an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion. This industry is projected to experience significant growth through at least 2025 when AUVSI foresees more than 100,000 jobs created and economic impact of $82 billion. These numbers are even more substantial on a global basis. Interestingly, due to the delays caused by the FAA creating a regulatory framework, much of this emerging activity has been driven overseas.

Regulations

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the EU’s authority for aviation safety, has already issued a proposed regulatory framework which will identify new regulations by December of this year. EASA is taking a different approach by treating drones as their own category of aircraft, rather than trying to jam them into the framework for manned aviation as the FAA seems to be attempting.

Drone operations in Europe that are “officially sanctioned” far outpace American drone operations.  According to a recent article in Forbes, there are 2,495 operators of drones weighing less than 150kg (330 pounds) in the E.U. EASA believes that number to be the largest amongst worldwide operations as figures show just 2,342 operators flying in the rest of the world combined (with 2,000 of those sanctioned operations taking place in Japan). Doing the math here, the U.S. only has a small fraction of the global drone operations, with our two major competitors for aerospace dominance (the E.U. and Japan) leading the charge. U.S., you can thank the FAA for dragging its feet. Along with many of the politicians and scare-mongers, you have various fears about the spread of drones. Obviously, we do not need those jobs or tax revenue.

Getting the market started

As the U.S. typically does, we start slowly, try and find our way, and then surpass most of the competition. Due to our batch of seasoned military drone personnel, you can imagine that the U.S. should not be counted out of this new market.

The military will undoubtedly supply the initial batch of trained personnel providing commercial enterprises with a quick means of pulling together a lower-risk business (if you can ever consider having remotely-controlled aircraft flying over homes and schools ever having a reduced risk for any reason). Every drone manufacturer or operator has been recruiting military-trained personnel as they become available, making it a challenge for any government to retain trained personnel.

Amazon.com had been noted recently for seeking flight operators with military experience (in the U.K.) as well as other technical personnel experienced in handling such vehicles. Google bought an established drone manufacturer (Titan Aerospace) and even Facebook is getting into the game. (This social networking company obviously has no idea of what do with its pile of money, so it bought drone maker Ascenta.)

Schools and training

The need for trained personnel has driven many universities and aviation schools to develop courses and training regimens to meet demand. As this market matures and government regulations are updated (once they are actually released), the demand for trained personnel will skyrocket further. This demand will be for not only skilled operational personnel but also those specializing in maintenance and repair of these new and specialized craft.

Several dozen universities are offering — or planning to offer — drone programs. Schools such as Embry-Riddle, University of Kansas and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University are among the many colleges providing formal training. The Northland Community & Technical College Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance Training Center claims to be the first program of its kind offering specific vocation. The Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix is a new school dedicated to this specific area of interest. It offers a drone/UAV pilot training certificate, professional certificate in unmanned aircraft systems project management and a master’s degree in unmanned (air, ground, sea and space) systems engineering. This university was founded in 2012 by a former Top Gun pilot in the U.S. Air Force. The university’s instructor pilots have collective experience of more than 60,000 hours in Global Hawk, Predator, Reaper and other UAVs.

The table on page 31 should not be considered an exhaustive list, but should serve as a starting point for anyone seeking to find a school that offers studies in this area.

If you find a need to change your career and are interested in getting in a new, emerging sector in aviation, consider being involved with drones. For those who are interested in applying their aviation experience and skills to a new subsector, it should be a lucrative and exciting time to move into these fields. The competition between companies, schools, research centers and even countries should be intense for a few years, and this creates the potential for interesting opportunities. 

John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Information Tool Designers (ITD), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects for the FAA and DHS. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). John has also been onic FAA 8130-3 forms, as well as in defining digital identities with PKI. His recent publication, ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report,’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts, is available on OPMResearch.com as a PDF download, or a printed book version is available on Amazon.com.

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