There’s No Flying in Drone School

Pilot-Training Programs Stay Grounded Due to FAA Rules


drone-school 1A quadcopter lifted off at the University of Missouri last year—before the school got a letter from the FAA saying it violated agency policy.MCT/Zuma Press

Capitalizing on an anticipated boom in the unmanned-aircraft industry, several U.S. universities and colleges are launching training programs for future drone pilots. The problem: the Federal Aviation Administration says its rules barring commercial use of drones apply to teaching programs as well, effectively prohibiting students from hands-on instruction. So the schools are teaching tomorrow’s drone pilots with simulators, textbooks and more novel workarounds.

‘I take them all the way up to the point where the motor’s ready, and then I tell them to abort,’ said Don Wirthlin, head of the drone-training program at Cochise College in Douglas, Ariz. ‘We’re not going to do anything illegal.’

One of Mr. Wirthlin’s latest strategies in avoiding the no-fly rule is to string a drone from a boom truck to teach students how to use its camera and sensors. He also puts students through tricky drone-simulator scenarios, such as locating missing people in an offshore oil-rig fire, pursuing a car that flees an accident and spotting cattle that have escaped from a ranch.

Some drone-instruction programs are small and grant technical certificates or associate degrees, like the one at Cochise, a community college, which charges an in-state tuition of about $24,500, not including housing. It has 15 students enrolled in the program.

Others are intensive four-year programs where students train on expensive flight simulators and even manned aircraft. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, in Daytona Beach, Fla., augments simulator training by having students fly drones indoors, or tethered to the ground with heavy-duty fishing line. The four-year program totals about $175,000, including flight time and room and board.

The school has more than 220 students in its ‘unmanned systems sciences’ bachelor’s degree program, up from 11 in 2011. ‘We don’t have to do much recruiting. They come to us,’ said Dan Macchiarella, Embry-Riddle’s chairman of aeronautical science.

Embry-Riddle students also study math and robotics and take courses on how to fly drones and manned aircraft. And about half of the students receive a commercial-pilot certificate, which requires flying a single-engine plane for hundreds of hours.

So far, drone-pilot jobs are mainly at military contractors overseas or government agencies in the U.S., and are generally filled by former military pilots. But the industry expects demand for thousands of new drone pilots in areas like surveying and agriculture once the FAA finalizes new rules for the devices, which is expected in the next several years.

drone-school 2University of North Dakota aviation students operate a drone simulator.Associated Press

Meanwhile, faculty say it is difficult to develop curricula for a profession whose rules aren’t yet set. For instance, observers expect the FAA to require licenses for drone pilots, like commercial pilots, but it is unclear what training those licenses might require.

‘Our curriculum was based on a best guess on what exists now and what would exist in five years,’ said Ben Trapnell, founder of the unmanned-aircraft program at the University of North Dakota, which has taught more than 200 students since it began in 2009. ‘My real goal is to get them to learn how to learn,’ he said, so that students can adapt when rules come.

The university’s four-year program, which costs about $118,000 including tuition and housing, grants a bachelor of science in aeronautics.

Students in drone programs say the potential opportunities in the commercial-drone industry outweigh the unknowns.

Justin Hood, a 21-year-old senior at Embry-Riddle, said he understands a drone degree ‘is a risk, but in my mind I still feel like I’ll be able to get a job.’ He is scheduled to graduate next year, likely without formal pilot training on a real drone. His experience with drones entails tens of hours on the simulator, flying a six-inch remote-control helicopter at home and trying out a friend’s quadcopter, a common style of drone that has four rotors and hovers like a helicopter.

Faculty at the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle say nearly all of the roughly 100 graduates from their drone programs have found jobs as government drone pilots, as civilian contractors for the military, or with drone makers. Most start around $50,000 a year, but some alumni now make almost $200,000 annually, they said.

Kansas State University faculty until recently taught students how to fly drones in nearby military airspace. ‘One of the things that makes our [unmanned-aircraft] program unique is that we don’t rely totally on simulation. We have hands-on platforms,’ Kurt Barnhart, the program’s director, says in a video advertising the program online.

But when contacted, Mr. Barnhart said the Kansas National Guard earlier this year revoked those privileges. The Guard and the FAA said the Defense Department started enforcing an existing policy that prohibits nonmilitary users from flying drones in military airspace.

The FAA grants some waivers to government entities, including police departments and public universities, to fly drones in U.S. airspace. Kansas State has more than 10 of those waivers, but universities can use their devices only for research, not flight training.

The agency said there is an exemption schools could apply for to fly drones for instruction, but no schools have yet applied.

Now Kansas State is planning to rely on simulators. ‘There will be a path forward,’ Mr. Barnhart said in an interview. ‘I can’t articulate what that is right now.’


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