Drones Go To College: Northwest Universities Add Programs in Unmanned Aerial Systems

Nov 5, 2015

If you want to go to college to learn how to design, build, fly or fix a drone, your time has come. Many institutions of higher learning around the Northwest are recognizing that unmanned aircraft could become a key technology of the future.

But the murky and evolving regulations for drone flying present lots of hurdles to give hands-on piloting experience.

The University of Washington's Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory is working on how civilian drones can safely share the skies with manned aircraft. Other research universities in the Northwest have also added programs that play to traditional strengths. For example, drones in forestry at Oregon State University and for automating farming tasks at Washington State University.

Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration selected OSU to be part of a national academic research consortium called the "Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems," which came with federal grant funding to expand research and training.

Community colleges are the latest to get in the act. At least half a dozen schools in Idaho, Oregon and Washington are standing up vocational UAS operator courses. Within the last year, Central Oregon Community College in Bend and Green River College in Auburn, Washington, established Associate of Applied Science degrees in unmanned aerial systems.

‘An opportunity that a lot of students don't usually get’

“There seems like there is a lot of demand [from students for this curriculum],” Green River College Senior Aviation Instructor George Comollo said. “It is getting to be very promising.”

For the promise to be fully realized though, Comollo said the FAA needs to complete the promulgation of rules for operation of small unmanned aerial vehicles in the national airspace and set the minimum qualifications of commercial drone operators.

At UW, senior Ryan Valach savored his three years in the autonomous flight lab.

"One of the coolest parts is the collaboration we get to do with industries and all the cool technology we work with,” he said. “It is definitely an opportunity that a lot of students don't usually get."

Aeronautics and Astronautics master's student Ward Handley wasn't as sold at first.

"I specifically decided, ‘No, I do not want to work on drones because of the privacy issues,’” he said recalling his introductory campus tours.

But then came an offer for a paid position in a drone lab. Handley said his initial negative perception has radically changed.

"I'd like to see them used for good rather than ill,” Handley said. “I think there are enough good applications for them that are really useful to society so that it is worthwhile to pursue these things."

Where to fly: gyms, conference rooms and Down Under

A challenge for many academic unmanned aerial systems programs is finding a place to fly legally. At Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Oregon, students fly inside the college gym.

In Seattle, UW student Alec Bueing showed off his department’s flight test range for small, remote-controlled copters.

"Just a conference room that we move the tables and chairs out of the way for, make sure to bring the blinds down so if it happens to get out of control toward the windows we minimize any damage,” Bueing said.

Why indoors? UW research scientist Christopher Lum said it takes a very long time for everyone besides hobbyists to get official permission to fly a drone outside.

"The federal regulations are a little bit stifling on that front,” he explained. “We need to file for paperwork. We need to register our aircraft. We need to obtain what is called a Certificate of Authorization -- or waiver."

All of which can take months. That's why Lum said he and some of the students from the autonomous flight lab he heads have relocated to more accommodating Australia for the past two summers to log flying time. A Western Washington University professor took his department's two drones across the border to British Columbia for the same reason.

"To be fair, I think the FAA has a very hard job,” Lum acknowledged. “They have to worry about safety first. Safety has to be paramount in their eyes and very rightly so."

New regulations and good job prospects

The federal agency aims to replace its current case-by-case examination of drone authorization requests with a national rule for civil and commercial UAS operations later in 2016.

“At this time, Kansas State University is the only school with a... regulatory exemption to offer unmanned aircraft flight instruction to students [outdoors]. We are currently evaluating similar petitions from a number of other universities and colleges,” an FAA spokesperson wrote in an email Thursday.

Kansas State began offering bachelor's degrees in UAS in 2011. This fall, the university added a second degree option in "drone design and integration." KSU, along with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of North Dakota were first to create UAS degrees according to the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence. The University of Colorado-Boulder also has a mature UAS program.

In any case, the prospects for graduates in this field look good. A number of the seniors in the UW Autonomous Flight Systems lab were getting invitations to job interviews long before graduation.