Photo by Hubble Ray Smith.
Flying a drone isn’t just kids play. It could lead to a lucrative career in unmanned aircraft systems, a new curriculum being offered at Mohave Community College.
MCC’s governing board in August approved unmanned aircraft systems as part of the college’s computer science degree.
Students would earn an associate degree and then transfer to a four-year college for their bachelor’s degree, saving thousands of dollars in education costs for a high-paying career with growing demand.
Unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, technology is in demand by military, private and corporate users. According to a recent Congressional research publication, the U.S. market will grow to $4.3 billion by 2020, with the industry providing nearly 10,000 jobs.
“It’s not like flying a drone you get at Walmart,” said Andra Goldberg, faculty member at MCC’s Neal Campus. “It’s designing the system and all the programming for unmanned aircraft.”
Drones and unmanned aircraft are considered to be fairly synonymous, although some would contend that a drone can be differentiated by the level of automation that programs its flight maneuvers, whereas an unmanned aircraft is remotely pilot-controlled by “stick and rudder.”
“I believe there are definitely similarities, but it’s like flying model airplanes and then piloting a real one,” Goldberg said.
The MCC degree prepares students to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, one of a few universities that offer a bachelor’s of science degree in unmanned aircraft systems.
“The sophistication and expertise of the Embry-Riddle program prepares students for positions in industry and government, understanding the security, legalities and parameters of flying expensive unmanned aircraft throughout the world,” Goldberg said.
“UAS majors also gain a broad understanding of business, aviation, regulations, technology, meteorology and security issues associated with the industry,” Embry-Riddle’s academic catalog states.
Computer Information Systems faculty members Matt Butcher in Bullhead City, Peter Burgess in Lake Havasu City and Goldberg in Kingman developed the UAS curriculum, which is hooked in with the engineering department.
Classes that comprise MCC’s associate degree include computer science, physics, math, and programming courses.
“This degree is designed as a transfer to Embry-Riddle,” Goldberg said. “However, an associate of science degree in computer sciences is a great degree to have for entry-level positions throughout the country.”
MCC “takes the pulse” of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed a need for unmanned aircraft training, she said. Military and commercial uses of unmanned aircraft are probably going to be the future.
MCC has a growing program in computer science and unmanned aircraft systems is a great addition, Goldberg noted. “I would recommend it for students wanting to enter this field and save tuition dollars by using MCC for their first years of classes.”
Because the UAS program is in its infancy, students have yet to find out about it and sign up for the curriculum.
Shivam Bhakta, who completed his associate degree in computer administration at MCC, is pursuing technology management at University of Northern Arizona. He said he’d consider coming back for the unmanned aircraft degree. The more you learn, the better, he said.
Studying unmanned aircraft systems is relatively new. University of North Dakota started the first bachelor’s degree in 2009, and other universities such as Kansas State and Embry-Riddle followed suit.
There are now about 30 universities that offer UAS degree programs, with community colleges offering two-year degrees as well.
And you can snag a six-figure salary right out of college. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that the global market will be $140 billion in the next 10 years.
While most UAS jobs are working with military applications, experts say industry growth is going to come through the private sector, from farmers inspecting their fields, meteorologists tracking hurricanes and construction workers surveying sites.