Why you should care
Because flying a drone might be your actual job someday.
Out on a football field on Treasure Island in California, students come to learn the basics of moving left, swerving to the right and otherwise mastering the fine art of hovering from Werner von Stein. The goal for some? To parlay this practice into a new job skill or even a career.
Sure, for some, drone-flying lessons are all about recreation and ensuring that high-tech, $100 birthday gift can create flawless figure eights without smashing into the side of a neighbor’s house. But some students, including scientists employing $40,000 research drones and aspiring photographers and videographers, are also investing in classes at their local Drone U to help them navigate their fields or boost their future career prospects. Options these days include an aerial filmmaking class in Florida, corporate drone pilot-training courses, a college certificate program in Minnesota for an unmanned aerial systems maintenance technician and a growing number of degrees that incorporate at least some kind of education about drones.
With companies like Amazon and Google investing in fleets of drones as their businesses expand, the commercial drones market is quickly expanding. It’s forecasted to be worth $4.8 billion by 2021, up from $609 million in 2014, WinterGreen Research estimates. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration also updated its regulations to make it easier for businesses to get licensed, and more than 660 companies have applied so far, including movie studios, the insurance firm State Farm and the San Diego Gas & Electric company.
Training will help people be “responsible citizens in the air,” and that may ultimately be what interests employers.
So where are the possible job leads or career-lifting skills as corporate demand takes off? The biggest need today is for aerial photographers and videographers, says Colin Snow, a drone analyst with Insights for the Commercial Drone Industry, a company that monitors this sector’s trends. Starting salaries for imagery analysts in the drone industry run anywhere from just over $57,000 to more than $84,000 a year, experts estimate. Other businesses looking include those involved in geographic mapping or surveying, construction and inspecting infrastructure such as railroads and cell towers. Agriculture is another hot area, though there are restrictions on when drones can be used, and they’re increasingly competing against businesses that already offer satellite imagery.
Drone trainers — who typically teach the basics of flying and navigating pesky FAA regulations — may take different approaches in their individual classes. In von Stein’s sessions, which cost $50 an hour and have been running at SFDrone School, newbies employ a particular model known as the “game of drones” — which claims to be the “world’s toughest drone airframe.” Once fliers get a handle on the basics, they fine-tune their skills, landing on a target 10 feet away, for example, then 20 feet. “At 5 feet, everyone’s an expert,” von Stein notes, “but when you fly further away you lose orientation.”
The cure for that? Practice, says von Stein, which means ponying up for additional lessons, of course. Though there’s nothing stopping people from trying their hand at flying a drone without lessons, training will help people be “responsible citizens in the air,” says aviation consultant Kit Darby, and that may ultimately be what interests employers. At von Stein’s sessions, for instance, students’ drones are tethered to his controller so he can rescue them when needed.
To be sure, the world is a long way from autonomous drones delivering items like, say, pizzas, notes Darby, and it’s not like job fairs are packed with employers seeking drone-flyers today. Meanwhile, drone regulations remain pretty strict, meaning mass adoption is a ways off. And while some salaries in this sector soar as high as $115,000 a year — for someone with a pilot’s license to fly a drone — “that will likely go down,” warns Snow. The reason: Commercial operators currently need a license, he says, whereas proposed rules from the FAA don’t have any such requirement, so it’ll be easier for folks to learn how to fly these machines.
Still, interest in these kinds of programs is growing. My First Drone, an informational site, says folks from around the world have reached out with interest in starting educational programs for high school and college students, housewives and farmers in South Africa. One time someone contacted the site because they did a lot of weddings, “and they wanted to build a drone for the purpose of dropping roses on the bride, groom and congregation at the end,” says Darrell Smith, who created the site with his son. The next step, naturally, would be learning how to navigate the machine without slamming into the newlyweds.
Dani Hutton contributed reporting.