The unmanned aircraft industry is on the verge of a significant expansion. Current job demand in this sector is quite limited in Texas today, but the industry is poised to take off during the next three years as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to roll out new rules. This brief provides instructional leaders with focused insights into this emerging and evolving sector through interviews with industry experts, online searches of training activities, and analysis of employment demand data.
The unmanned aircraft industry is on the verge of a significant expansion. Current job demand in this sector is quite limited in Texas today, but the industry is poised to take off during the next three years as the Federal Aviation Administration continues to roll out new rules. These regulations will clarify where unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can fly, what types of applications are allowed, and what kind of training is required for workers in this industry. Rapid innovation is taking place in the UAS sector which has grown from backyard hobby to military use and soon to broad commercial use. The current lack of job demand for UAS-related skills in Texas does warrant caution for colleges considering starting new UAS training programs at this time. This brief provides instructional leaders with focused insights into this emerging and evolving sector through interviews with industry experts, online searches of training activities, and analysis of employment demand data.
Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have existed for decades but reached new heights in 2009 when the U.S. Department of Defense started training more pilots to fly unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft.1 The industry has evolved from consumers flying simple remote-controlled model planes purchased at hobby stores to a more than $5 billion industry with aircraft that weigh anywhere from 4 pounds to 27,000 pounds and fly for days with advanced cameras, sensor packages, advanced electronics, and weapons systems.
The unmanned aircraft industry is now at an inflection point. For one, significant Pentagon spending on UASs in recent years has attracted new manufacturers and new service providers to join existing large defense contractors.
The UAS market is now anticipated to grow from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion annually, totaling $89 billion in the next ten years. Much of that is being spent with military contractors.2 As the current wars are phased-down those companies are trying to find civilian uses for their unmanned aircraft and workers trained on specific unmanned aircraft are leaving the military and trying to find civilian uses for their skills and experience.
Demand has emerged for non-federal unmanned aircraft, including smaller and cheaper UASs, with a primary focus on police surveillance, which is allowed. In addition, private companies have expressed an interest in commercial uses of unmanned aircraft ranging from bridge inspections to aerial photography to agriculture monitoring to package delivery.
Much depends on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is moving forward to determine what kinds of unmanned aircraft will be permitted to fly over United States soil as well as what areas of the U.S. airspace those aircraft will be allowed.3 The FAA is also working to determine the training and education that the pilots, sensor analysts and maintenance workers for these unmanned aircraft will need.4
For now, the Border Patrol, police departments and other government entities with trained pilots can fly unmanned aircraft with authorization from the FAA. Civilians can fly unmanned aircraft by obtaining a “Special Airworthiness Certificate” from the FAA. Also, hobbyists can fly remote-controlled planes provided they keep a line of sight, fly them below 400 feet from the ground, and stay away from schools, crowds and airports.5 But no commercial operations are currently permitted. That is expected to change.
The UAS sector is currently dominated by military and defense applications. Industry experts anticipate the UAS industry will follow past innovation diffusion patterns from the highly specialized military applications common today to less expensive, smaller and more commoditized commercial and consumer uses. The AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) is a Washington, D.C.-based trade association founded in 1972 but whose membership has spiked in recent years to 6,000 members in 55 counties. Now the association is seeing more members come from the commercial sector as companies are trying to come up with non-military uses for unmanned aircraft.
Investors are eager for UAS market opportunities. In early 2012, three prankster students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a website to announce their “Taco Copter” business. TacoCopter.com advertised that customers could use their cell phone to order a few tacos with an online system, which would both process a credit card and take the global positioning location of the cell phone. A restaurant would then load the tacos into the Taco Copter, which would fly to the location of the cell phone (provided it was within about five miles of the restaurant). This taco delivery system that only needed one human worker – the taco chef – intrigued many venture capitalists. But the investment bankers were annoyed to learn a fully operational Taco Copter didn’t exist. The students got a laugh but pointed out that a GPS-guided aerial taco delivery device was feasible with today’s technology.6
In fact, UAS pick up and delivery is already a reality. The first combat cargo delivery by an unmanned aircraft system took place December 17, 2011 to U.S. Marines stationed at an outpost in Helmand province, Afghanistan. And the U.S. Army is currently seeking proposals for a UAS platform to pick up wounded soldiers and evacuate them from the field. Downstream commercial UAS package delivery services are more than plausible.
Michael Buscher, chief executive officer of Vanguard Defense Industries in Conroe, Texas, has said he expects the market for unmanned aircraft to grow beyond the Pentagon to local governments and private commercial uses over the next few years. His company near Houston has been building unmanned aircraft for the U.S. Army but now has expanded into selling remote-controlled helicopters weighing about 50 pounds with mounted video cameras for about $300,000 to police departments (including Houston PD) and even shipping companies. The market for Vanguard’s products could expand this year as the FAA sets up more rules for what kind of unmanned aircraft are allowed to fly and who can fly them.7, 8
These small, unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) are significantly less expensive and require fewer specially trained personnel than the traditional military unmanned aircraft systems. For example, the senseFly Swinglet CAM can be operated by a single person with minimal training and is already being marketed and sold outside the U.S. for commercial applications. This pattern is likely to continue as the commercial UAS markets mature and technological advances enable increasingly autonomous flight, more efficient propulsion and power systems, and commoditized components.
Al Brunner, a manager with the FAA’s NextGen and unmanned aircraft operations in Fort Worth, compares the unmanned aircraft industry now to where the regular airplane industry was 100 years ago. The industry emerged, industry standards and government regulations gave some direction, the industry expanded rapidly, companies consolidated, and a universe of specialized occupations developed.9 The UAS and SUAS markets can be expected to do the same across a broad range of commercial and non-military applications.
Ben Gielow of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is bullish on UAS job growth potential. His trade association projects job growth in the field will grow at 3.5% to 4.5% a year through 2025.10 That would mean the number of Americans directly employed in the unmanned aircraft field would grow from a little less than 25,000 non-military workers today to about 46,000 workers in 2025.
“Although the FAA is still very restrictive in who can fly unmanned aircraft, we do still see a lot of growth in this industry,” said Gielow. “Once the airspace is opened up for routine UAS operations, we think the market will grow even further.”11
Pending these new rules, employer demand for UAS-specific skills remains rather sparse in Texas. A recent check of online help wanted postings found only 40 job openings in Texas strongly related to unmanned aircraft systems. These included mostly military and defense related jobs with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Camber Corporation, Qinetiq North America, L-3 Communications, and Bosh Global Services.
“Maintenance, sustainment and servicing jobs will be created,” said Andy Pennington, senior program manager of UAS training systems for K2Share in College Station. “Employers will need to send existing employees to ‘difference training’ so they can transfer existing skills on manned aircraft to unmanned aircraft.”12
He also sees basic economics of cost cutting as a key driver for the unmanned aircraft industry. “It is dictated by cost savings that will be attained by having fewer pilots and not having to pay for their weight and life support on the aircraft. Essentially, unmanned aircraft systems can save money. And the weak economy is driving the shifting market that way,” he said.
And that would bring the unmanned aircraft industry to Texas, he figures. “Texas has existing aircraft manufacturing and sustainment businesses,” Pennington said. “Also, [the unmanned aircraft industry] is heavily dependent on the availability of unrestricted airspace – and Texas has a lot of that.”
Texas can further build an unmanned aircraft industry as more aerospace workers are leaving NASA and looking for related jobs, Pennington said. And with a rich aerospace heritage and many existing aerospace companies, Texas makes sense for unmanned aircraft companies and—eventually—training programs.
Pennington and his co-workers are hoping that some Texas community can create an unmanned aircraft industry cluster like the one in Grand Forks, N.D. The Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce proudly points out how the community has more than a dozen companies and 250 new jobs in just the last two years from startups and existing companies setting up shop with their products for the unmanned aircraft industry. That growing cluster of companies is fed by a nearby university and community college teaching courses in unmanned aircraft systems.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has similar thoughts for its Daytona Beach, Florida, campus. Embry-Riddle announced this year an accredited bachelor’s of science degree in unmanned aircraft systems science, following the lead of the University of North Dakota. The school is also touting its close proximity to Kennedy Space Center where NASA is downsizing its workforce leaving workers looking for new industries to work in while remaining in the region.13
Economic development opportunities certainly exist around the burgeoning UAS market in Texas. “UAVs” were one of nine targets of opportunity identified by the Texas Aerospace and Defense Cluster which recommended in 2005 that Texas “aggressively pursue this market.”14
To date, Texas has yet to form a comprehensive UAS state strategy – something that several other states are aggressively pursuing.
The industry is keenly focused on pending regulatory moves by the Federal Aviation Administration.15 The FAA is establishing new rules for who gets to fly or work on unmanned aircraft and where they are allowed to fly in the United States. Mr. Michael Huerta, acting administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration, spoke on UAS airspace integration at the annual AUVSI in August of this year and said the agency’s focus is on making the airspace safer, bringing on benefits of technology, and empowering employers to be innovative.
Instead of the traditional cross-agency paradigm of bringing on a new system, Huerta created the UASIO (Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Office) to be a “one-stop portal” to integrate UASs into the national airspace. In 2012, the FAA released new rules across three categories of unmanned aircraft users:
The FAA will soon release a solicitation of proposals for at least six unmanned aircraft system test sites, which will be specific areas in the United States where companies can set up operations to test new unmanned aircraft. The test sites will be spread out across the nation to allow testing unmanned aircraft in different climates.
Congress directed the FAA to complete all rules for unmanned aircraft by Sept. 30, 2015, including how to certify operators and the airspace restrictions. Still, the FAA is already being pushed in different legal directions.16
On the one hand are industry leaders who want to use unmanned aircraft as an inexpensive tool.
“Agriculture is really interested in this technology because of the multi-spectral sensors that can be used to determine water use or plant health. You could use it to count your cattle or see where your fence posts have fallen down,” said Brunner.17
On the other hand, there are legal arguments if unmanned aircraft pose a threat to Americans being spied on or if the aircraft can carry weapons for terrorists. And those legal debates will have to play out with elected officials and the courts to further guide this young industry, he said.
Texas also has some of the most vocal members of Congress regarding unmanned aircraft. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo and co-chair of the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, has acknowledge legal issues regarding privacy and safety yet he has argued in hearings that the FAA needs to move fast to allow the unmanned aircraft industry to grow.
“The unmanned aircraft system industry, when expanded, will not only benefit communities by serving as useful law enforcement tools, but also has the potential to create well-paying employment opportunities for Texans,” Cuellar said.18 Cuellar has stated he wants to see more unmanned aircraft patrolling the border with Mexico with surveillance cameras. He also wants farmers in the South Texas valley to be allowed to use unmanned aircraft to view their fields, view water usage and even deliver pesticides.
“As this technology shifts from the battlefield to civilian and commercial uses, we will only see more of these jobs created,” said fellow co-chair Howard McKeon, a Republican from California. “Defense, intelligence, scientific, and law enforcement agencies along with broad support from the general public recognize the true value of unmanned systems and their ability to provide exceptional situational awareness at a substantially lower cost, minimizing risks and protecting lives,” McKeon said in a letter to the acting administrator of the FAA encouraging continued integration of UASs into the national airspace system.19
While regulatory uncertainties leave college administrators in somewhat of a holding pattern, it is broadly anticipated that the commercial UAS market will experience significant growth in the near future and increased job demand for UAS-skilled pilots and related occupations. Some colleges are already jumping into the market and Texas is well advised to take notice and formulate strategies to be a part of this rapidly expanding industry.
An increasing number of colleges and universities are teaching courses and offering programs in unmanned aircraft systems in anticipation of a future growth industry. “I believe it’s going to be a big growth industry,” said Tony Sauerbrey, unmanned aircraft system program manager, at Northwestern Michigan College, a community college in Traverse City, Michigan. “The economics just make sense for this industry to grow and add a lot of jobs.”20
Northwestern Michigan College is considered by many as the premier community college for pilot training in the growing field of unmanned aircraft vehicles. The school now has 120 flight students – many of whom take the three classes the school offers in unmanned aviation systems – to go along with 15 aircraft the school already had.
“Most aviation schools are going to be teaching unmanned aviation within 10 years. You’re going to see a lot of community colleges get into this as the job demand grows. This is going to put schools on the map. It’s an additional reason for student to go to that school,” Sauerbrey said. “It’s new and exciting.”
Students work toward an associate’s degree in aviation with a concentration in unmanned aviation offered in three specialized UAS classes:
Sauerbrey said his graduates are quickly getting jobs at defense contractors and making the industry standard of $50,000 to $100,000 a year. “Our [graduates] are typically getting jobs at companies that are doing [U.S. Department of Defense] work and they’re doing really well,” Sauerbrey said. So far, the workers getting the highest paying jobs are those that have the most education, he said. He hopes the program will launch more higher-paying careers for his students.
“We’re in this a little early on our campus in anticipation of civilian jobs that will come along in the commercial sector in the next year,” Sauerbrey said. “I believe this industry is going to grow because there are so many applications. FedEx and UPS are talking about how interested they are in using this technology to deliver packages.21 Of course this could help for bridge and building inspections. And, of course, there’s police surveillance or patrolling along the borders. There is so much,” Sauerbrey said.
“In the near future, I believe we’re going to have as many unmanned aircraft as manned aircraft,” Sauerbrey said.” He compares this industry to the early automotive industry that had many manufacturers and suppliers of all sizes, then after the auto industry matured and got safety rules the companies consolidated and brought their products to more consumers. Along the way the unmanned aircraft makers will standardize technology for issues like control instruments, radar and sensors to detect nearby buildings and passenger planes.
“The jobs are there but, for now, the jobs are Department of Defense related,” Sauerbrey said.
The AUVSI trade association has seen an increase in schools offering unmanned aircraft classes, but only about a dozen community colleges and universities have accredited degree programs with multiple classes.
The AUVSI recently released its industry employment study that estimates $1.6 billion in new wages could be created through the year 2025 – or about $107 million a year – if the federal government allows unmanned aircraft access to the skies over the United States.22
This market growth is why as many as 150 schools across the globe now offer some kind of unmanned aircraft curriculum, according to AUVSI estimates. Most of those schools are unaccredited schools that have suddenly started advertising online that they have a new unmanned aircraft-training program. And here is where public colleges have an advantage because the current laws allow the FAA to issue Certificate of Authorizations only to government entities to fly unmanned aircraft over U.S. soil, particularly for training purposes.
“Are there going to be opportunities for community colleges and technical colleges to train people to fly and work on this technology? Yes. Is this industry going to grow and change over time? Yes,” said Brunner.
“Everything you have in the current aviation industry you’re going to need in this industry only a little bit different, including more software programmers and technical skills,” Brunner continued. “The aircraft is just a means of getting a sensor up in the air to do work.”
The authors propose three growth scenarios for consideration by instructional leaders contemplating starting UAS training programs.
The authors provide five recommendations for consideration:
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