Commercial drone use keeps climbing, and many companies are looking for candidates with the skills and certifications to take them to the next level.
Central Michigan University is on a trajectory to help students fill that need.
This year, Benjamin Heumann, a faculty member in geography and environmental studies, has designed and taught a new course, Drones: Theory, Application and Society, on regulations for drone use and opportunities for skilled pilots.
"We are doing everything involved in drone operation except the actual flying," he said. "The goal is to prepare students to operate drones in the commercial environment and to think about them more professionally."
While drone-like vehicles have been in use, mainly by the military, for 100 years, commercial use has skyrocketed since Amazon announced in 2013 that it was testing the use of drones for delivery.
"This class makes us more marketable for drone-thriving industries ahead." — Megan Miller, CMU student
Drone permits approved by the Federal Aviation Administration have increased from just two in 2014 to 3,100 in 2016 and keep climbing, fueled by clarified and relaxed FAA rules.
"Now anyone can take an FAA test for safe UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) commercial operations," Heumann said.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts that by 2025 the commercial drone industry will create more than 100,000 jobs in the U.S., from commercial businesses like real estate to sports broadcasting.
Megan Miller, a senior majoring in geography: geographic information sciences, took Heumann's class because she is looking to the future.
"With the growing use of UASs in everything from agriculture to search and rescue, we as students are bound to find where they play a part in our future careers," said Miller, from Pewamo, Michigan.
"This class makes us more marketable for drone-thriving industries ahead."
Drone use also has been a great help to academic researchers, Heumann said, citing geology students who use them for mapping deposits and mine modeling, meteorology students who use them to collect atmospheric samples, engineering students who use them for surveying and infrastructure inspections, and journalism and cinematic arts students.
He said the interest in his first class was so high he had to find a larger room to accommodate the numbers.
John Gross, an earth and ecosystem sciences doctoral student from Brighton, Michigan, researches and maps biodiversity, the number of species in a given area and their relative abundance.
"What we've been working on is trying to create models that can predict indicators of biodiversity and mapping those in such a way that you can look at an image that we created with the drone and identify areas of high and low biodiversity for conservation purposes," he said.
As a master's student at CMU, he heard about Heumann's background and talked with him about using drones for his mapping.
"They've been a very useful tool," Gross said.
"I think drones are going to become increasingly used in remote mapping and other scientific research because the technology is developing and the cost is decreasing. I think there are a lot of opportunities for drones to help answer questions that previously people have fumbled with."
What he said he finds most beneficial to his research is that drones are interactive.
"I can guide it to where I want to go, compared with satellite images or airplanes that other people have put up. You get so much control."
Gross agrees that currently having drone skills is an advantage to landing a job.
But for him, he hopes to continue on the academic path and teach at a university.