An unmanned aircraft system demonstration at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. (Laura McDermott/Associated Press)
Secured inside a room you need a U.S. passport to enter, a modern arcade of war machines is a gamer’s paradise: comfortable captain’s chair, four monitors, joystick with a “fire” button, keyboard and throttle.
Across the world, a $20 million Gray Eagle drone armed with Hellfire missiles is taking commands from a workstation like this one at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. With a master’s degree in piloting drones, students could be in that other room — making $150,000 a year — in as little as six months.
Embry-Riddle this fall became the first in the country to offer post-graduate education in this field. Unmanned vehicles already come in all shapes and sizes — from full-sized planes to mini helicopters — and are used to patrol borders, nab poachers and more.
“It’s going to grow exponentially once the law catches up,” said Josh Olds, an Embry-Riddle grad and drone flight instructor there who previously worked with contractors overseas.
The industry is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to expand the usable U.S. airspace for drones. The government budget for drone warfare has gone from a relatively paltry $667 million in 2002 to more than $3.9 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report. And the number of drones in military service has shot from 167 to nearly 7,500 — and climbing.
In 2011, the University of North Dakota was the first to graduate a class — of five students — with a bachelor of science in unmanned systems. In May, Kansas State awarded its first diploma. Just three semesters in, Embry-Riddle has 120 students in its master’s program.
“It’s taking off like a rocket,” said Dan Macchiarella, department chair of aeronautical sciences at Embry-Riddle. “We had students go through the program as fast as they could to get out there.”
The nature of this fly-by-computer-screen technology attracts the young gamer-type, said Macchiarella, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who flew Apache helicopters. “My generation grew up with Vietnam on TV,” he said. “But this spins off from gaming. Just look at it.”