With more than 1.5 million drones registered in the United States, of which over 400,000 were registered for commercial use, it is clear that Unmanned Aircraft Systems(UAS), or drones, are not only increasing in popularity, but are also rapidly being incorporated into different industries for commercial use, from package delivery to emergency response. Against this backdrop of growing interest in drones for commercial applications, the Federal Aviation Administration established the UAS Integration Pilot Program in 2017 to “tackle challenges to safe and secure integration [of UAS in the national airspace], including night operations, flight over people, operations beyond the pilot’s line of sight, package delivery, detect-and-avoid technologies, remote identification and the reliability and security of data links between pilot and aircraft.” As the demand for qualified UAS operators grows, the FAA has gradually changed the legal requirements that it imposes on educational institutions offering instruction in UAS operation.
Prior to the implementation of the Small UAS Rule (known as Part 107) in 2016, institutions wishing to offer instruction in UAS operation were considered commercial operators and had to request a Section 333 exemption from the FAA. The process could be expensive and time-consuming, as it required the applicant to hold a FAA-issued pilot certificate (not the Part 107 Remote Pilot Certificate, as that did not exist at the time) and the review process could often take over 120 days. As a result, few educational institutions that did not already have established aviation programs had the resource or expertise to legally offer UAS instruction to students. Fortunately, with the passage of Part 107 in 2016 and the subsequent enactment of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, there are now specific rules that apply to educational users and institutions. Specifically, teachers and students can now either operate under (1) Part 107, which requires them to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA by passing an aeronautical knowledge exam, or (2) the exception for recreational flyers and community-based organizations. This modification of FAA rules enabled many more faculty and institutions to legally offer much-needed instruction in UAS operation.
In recognition of the need for a skilled UAS workforce, the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 also specifically instructed the FAA to establish a collegiate training initiative program for UAS as well as “designate consortia of public, 2-year institutions of higher education as Community and Technical College Centers of Excellence in Small Unmanned Aircraft System Technology Training.” While these initiatives have yet to be fully implemented by the FAA, there is no doubt that participating educational institutions will benefit from the FAA’s support and expertise. To estimate the impact that these initiatives will have on the nation’s UAS educational community, we researched and mapped educational institutions that currently offer certificate and degree programs in UAS, and classified them by their institutional characteristics (2-year vs. 4-year) and area(s) of focus.
The data for this study was gathered by conducting online searches for institutions of higher education that offer programs in UAS and drone-related technology. Most programs were found on department web pages or in school publications promoting the UAS program. The program websites were not always easy to find since they are often newer and smaller programs embedded in a bigger program within an established department (e.g. aviation, geography, graphic design). That wasn’t the only challenge when identifying these programs. Firstly, a search for “drone school” provided results for countless drone businesses promoting Part 107 test prep courses and other drone-related courses. Our UAS program map only includes educational institutions and does not take these businesses into consideration. Secondly, many college websites have information on the campus’ drone policy and how to obtain flying permission, but not necessarily a program in UAS. A final challenge was choosing which programs to include. We came across many schools that offered standalone UAS courses as well as those with student UAS clubs. These institutions were not included in our current study.
For schools that fit our criteria of offering a UAS certificate or degree, we documented program information like school name, website, address, 2-year or 4-year school, and public or private institution. Since the most recent “2018/2019 Drone Market Sector Report” published by Skylogic Research LLC found that top industries employing UAS included GIS/surveying, photography/videography, agriculture, first responder services, and engineering/maintenance, we also documented whether a college’s UAS program included courses that covered any of these industries. Providing this information gives prospective students a good reference point in their search for a UAS program that matches their career interest.
After compiling our results, we geocoded our data using Esri’s ArcGIS Pro software and created this online UAS program map. The map shows the locations of the schools, and categorizes them by the type of UAS program that they offer (certificate and/or degree programs, noncredit programs). In addition, users can distinguish the schools by institutional characteristics (i.e. 2-year, 4-year school) by turning on the appropriate map layer (see the Content icon). Lastly, users have the option of clicking on each point to see additional information about each school’s program, such as its area(s) of focus.
View the live web map https://bit.ly/316uDLf
The UAS program map will be regularly updated as we receive new information about programs. The findings reported below are a snapshot of drone education programs in the country as of June 1, 2020.
Of the 104 schools that were included in our UAS program study, the majority fall into the 2-year category. Specifically, 67 of the 104 schools (64 percent) are in the 2-year category. We found that school type (2-year or 4-year) influences the program offerings. Initially, our data revealed a nearly equal number of schools offering certificates as opposed to degrees. Specifically, 37 schools offer only degrees, 40 offer only certificates, 17 offer both, and 10 offer non-credit or other types of programs. However, looking further into the data, it shows that 2-year schools offer more certificates, while 4-year schools offer more degrees. At 2-year schools, 45 percent of the institutions listed offer only a certificate, 27 percent offer only a degree, and 21 percent offer both a degree and certificate. Among 4-year schools however, we found that 27 percent offer only a certificate, while 51 percent offer only a degree, 8 percent offer both, and a few schools also offer UAS-related minors.
In terms of area(s) of focus, the most common department hosting UAS programs are aviation-related departments, followed by dedicated Unmanned Aircraft System departments. UAS programs are also found in a variety of other departments ranging from geography to forestry to engineering and many others. The variety of departments hosting UAS-related programs confirms the growing interest in UAS applications amongst a rising number of disciplines and industries.
There are two key takeaways from our study:
1. In response to the rising number of new and emerging commercial applications of UAS, many schools across the country, as well as governmental agencies such as the FAA, are seeking ways to prepare the future UAS workforce. Given the career and technical educational focus of many 2-year schools (i.e. junior college, community college), it is not surprising that a large percentage of them may choose to offer a certificate to train UAS operators or technicians to enter CTE programs (e.g. precision agriculture, construction inspection, graphic design, GIS) that already exist in those schools.
2. While our research found that there are more 2-year schools with UAS programs than 4-year institutions, this is not due to the lack of interest in UAS technology amongst 4-year schools. Instead, we found that many 4-year schools are more focused on research, design, and development of UAS. As a result, rather than creating a standalone certificate or degree in UAS, many 4-year schools are introducing UAS to their students through standalone courses, degree specializations, or student clubs within their engineering or computer science departments. Therefore, in addition to regularly updating our UAS program map, we plan to expand our future research to include standalone UAS courses and student clubs in order to present a more complete snapshot of UAS education in the United States.
Work reported in this article are supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant ATE #1700552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.