One word: drones.
Learning how to pilot these unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is now one of the more lucrative college majors. Depending on the college attended, starting salaries can vary wildly. According to Tom Kenville, founder of Unmanned Applications Institute International, a drone trade group, starting salaries for drone pilots usually range from $50,000 to $120,000 per year. In addition, those who analyze images captured by the unmanned aircraft can start at $100,000 a year. By comparison, entry-level salaries for airline pilots are around $20,000.
But as The Daily reported in March, a student at Northwestern Michigan University was reportedly offered a $200,000 job: "And he didn't even finish his associate’s degree." Meanwhile, recent graduates from Kansas State University can earn as much as $150,000 as a drone defense contractor. Josh Brungardt, the director of UAS at K-State, has been deluged with calls:
We get calls almost every day from other universities wanting to come and see what we have. We’ve got industry partners who are hiring even before our students graduate.
So far, around a dozen colleges and universities offer courses and certificates to study drones. Students can train for both civilian and military aircraft. But only the University of North Dakota (UND) and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida ("the Harvard of the Sky") offer a four-year degree in UAS.
In 2011, five UND students became the first class in the nation to earn a degree in UAS. Now the UAS major at UND has 44 students, and almost 80 are taking at least an introductory course. And thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration easing regulations for flying drones, even more pilots are expected in American skies.
At first glance, North Dakota might seem an odd choice to major in drones. Yet Northrop Grumman, the fourth largest defense contractor in the world, has opened an office near the UND campus in Grand Forks. It will soon have 100 employees. BoldMethod, a software start-up, is developing training software to operate Predator and Reaper drones for the US Air Force. In addition, pilots for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are trained in Grand Forks. The UAS director at CBP has even called demand for drones "insatiable."
However, this boomtown for the military-industrial complex has also had some civil liberties violations. Last December, a Predator drone from the Grand Forks Air Force base was used to arrest three men accused of stealing cows. This was the first time a drone was used to arrest American citizens. One of the men arrested is now suing the state of North Dakota for "outrageous government conduct" and "unlawful surveillance."
If current trends continue, there could be even more "unlawful surveillance." In a speech given last year in Grand Forks, Lt. General Larry James, who oversees reconnaissance for the Air Force noted: "In five years, the amount of data transmitted by Air Force unmanned aircraft is projected to reach an exabyte a day." That’s 1.1 billion gigabytes, equivalent to 228.5 million DVDs.