U.S. colleges begin offering more drone piloting programs to keep up with domestic drone boom
By Madison Ruppert
Editor of End the Lie
In response to the increasingly common use of drones in the U.S., which will only get more common in coming years, colleges around America are offering more training programs for drone pilots, including degrees in drone operation.
While it is a proven fact that drones are being used by the military and police in America, it must be noted that this is only going to rise significantly with more drone bases and potential applications as mundane as traffic monitoring.
Furthermore, with the acceptance of small spy drones by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the plans for increased use by the National Guard and others, a new drone training facility under construction in Florida and the possibility of drone use by the NYPD and other police departments, there is clearly a need to fill when it comes to drone pilots.
This is precisely what universities and colleges are attempting to capitalize on with an ever-increasing shift from military uses overseas – which are also on the rise – to civilian uses in the U.S.
According to NBC News, Kansas State University, the University of North Dakota and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida all currently offer full degrees for drone piloting but many others, including community colleges, offer training programs.
“And those numbers figure are set to increase, with some aviation industry analysts predicting drones will eventually come to dominate the U.S. skies in terms of jobs,” reports NBC News.
Some 14 universities and colleges (along with police departments, of course) have permits from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly drones, some of which are aimed at training drone pilots while others are granted for “border security,” research and other applications.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University assistant professor Alex Mirot told NBC, “We make it clear from the beginning that we are civilian-focused.”
Mirot, a former Air Force pilot responsible for piloting Predator and Reaper drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan “and elsewhere” (as NBC puts it) for four years from Nevada, oversees the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science program at Embry-Riddle.
“We want them to think about how to apply this military hardware to civilian applications,” Mirot said. I seriously doubt he thought about just how ominous that really sounds.
“As of now there aren’t rules on what an (unmanned aircraft) pilot qualification will be,” Mirot said. “You have to go to employer X and ask them, ‘What are you requiring?’ And that becomes the standard.”
While Embry-Riddle just recently graduated their first student with a bachelor’s degree in drone piloting, others have graduated with minors previously.
“I had a kid who deployed right away and he was making $140,000,” Mirot said. “That’s more than I ever made. Yeah, he’s going into Afghanistan, but he had no previous military experience or security clearance.”
Unfortunately, with fewer jobs offered in a more competitive marketplace for less pay, jobs like these might sound attractive to those who can brush aside the considerable ethical implications involved in working with drones.
While Mirot said that many of his students ideally want to be airline pilots, some say they plan to begin with drone piloting simply to pay off their hefty loans since commercial airline salaries start as low as $17,000 for the first year.
After they pay off their loans, “then maybe [they will] apply for an airline job,” Mirot told NBC.
The University of North Dakota is another university offering a four-year degree in drone piloting. Indeed, it was the first school to do so all the way back in 2009, according to reporting by the Star Tribune in July of 2012 which was also picked up by the Atlantic.
“Professor Alan Palmer, a retired brigadier general of the North Dakota National Guard, said 15 of the program’s 23 graduates now work for General Automics [sic] in San Diego, which makes the Predator and Reaper drones used in Pakistan and Afghanistan,” reports NBC.
No less than 50 U.S. universities have some kind of center, academic program or club for either drone engineering or flying with some of the programs working directly with the military.
For instance, Wright State University professor George Huang, who is behind a program building drones the size of hummingbirds, said that almost all of his 20 students also work as researchers for the Air Force.
“This means they’re earning between $60,000 and $80,000 a year while still enrolled, instead of the $15,000 stipend that graduate students typically receive from their schools,” according to NBC.
Others, like Texas A&M computer science student Brittany Duncan, are attempting to paint a more pretty picture of drones.
“That’s the most important thing to me – that people understand good can come from drones,” Duncan said. “Every technology is scary at first. Cars, when they went only 6 mph, people thought there would be a rash of people getting run over. Well, no, it’s going slow enough for you to get out of the way. And it’ll change your life.”
However, Duncan’s parallel is nothing short of absurd. Cars aren’t and have never been part of a highly secretive U.S. government assassination program. Cars aren’t part of an overseas “targeted killing” program run by the CIA under a veil of secrecy resulting in huge numbers of civilian casualties.
Cars also don’t have the possibility of becoming fully automated weapons systems, also known as “killer robots.”
Yet Duncan still somehow maintains that “Despite conflicting reports on civilian casualties in drone strikes, she’s convinced that unmanned aircraft offer a more-ethical battlefield alternative because they take the pilot’s ‘skin’ out of the game.”
“If you’re flying a UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter and look down and think someone has a surface-to-air missile, you’re going to shoot first and figure it out later because you’re a pilot and your life is in danger,” she said, according to NBC.
But with drones, “(You) can afford to make sure that someone is a combatant before they engage – because you don’t have your life on the line. It takes your emotion out of the equation.”
Either Duncan is wholly ignorant of the U.S. drone program, or she chooses to overlook the reality of the program in order to make herself feel better about what she is involved in.
In a somewhat disturbing statement, Randal Franzen, a 2011 graduate from Kansas State University’s drone training program, said, “I had three offers yesterday to go back and do the same thing [surveillance] for three different companies. I talked to them about flying. I’d rather pilot something. I’d like to go play with something cooler.”
It seems that for some people, piloting machines responsible for civilian deaths is “play[ing] with something cooler.” That thorough detachment from reality and the true impact of what they’re doing is, in my humble opinion, thoroughly disturbing.
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