In a field a few miles from Florida's Daytona Beach, some college students are flying drones. The scene is nothing out of the ordinary except these students are not doing it because it's their hobby, but because it's part of a course of study that will eventually earn them a bachelor's degree in, well, drones.
"What we've seen is an enormous interest for the program," said Alex Mirot, assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach campus. "We started only three years ago with about 11 students and that has grown to about 230 students just in that three-year period."
Embry-Riddle is one of a small but growing group of colleges and universities offering a degree in unmanned aircraft systems or UAS. The schools have launched the programs expecting a bump in demand for the engineers needed to design drones and operators needed to run them. This is because the Federal Aviation Administration faces a September deadline to propose rules that will allow some drones to be used commercially.
"Some people think that the commercial market for unmanned aircraft systems can be much bigger than the military market," said Steven Gitlin, vice president of marketing and communications of AeroVironment.
Based in Monrovia, California, AeroVironment makes small drones ranging from 3 to 13½ pounds. The drones are sold mostly to the military, in and outside of the United States, and are used primarily to gather information. Gitlin is expecting demand from the military to stay strong, but in anticipation of the new rules generating new business, the 700 person company is hiring.