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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Go Soaring for a Bird’s Eye View

unmanned aerial vehicle

In just a few short years, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, sometimes called drones) has risen dramatically. You may know someone who flies one as a hobby, and you’ve certainly seen the breathtaking bird’s-eye footage they can produce for movies and television.

But these agile little planes can do a lot more than make cool movies. Since their human pilots are safely on the ground, UAVs are light and nimble enough to move freely around an area without the usual dangers of flight.

They can be deployed for a variety of practical purposes: monitoring crops, checking on oil pipelines, even helping to fight wildfires. Their ability to see a large area from a safe distance makes them useful in military operations, border security and disaster relief. They can even fly into the eye of a hurricane to study its strength and progress.

Justin Hood is a UAV Operator/Instructor at Textron Systems in Blackstone, Virginia. He flies UAVs every day and teaches others how to operate them.

“At our training facility, we teach students from the ground level how to fly the aircraft,” he says. “They learn system limits, including how fast and how high it can go. And then we spend about three weeks flying the aircraft in the real world.”

All of these flights are managed through command and control technology, which links the vehicle to a ground control station through a communication system. It looks a bit like a video game, but with a real aircraft and mission at hand.

Trevor Britt is a Flight Operations Manager and says there are many paths to working with UAVs.

“You can get a degree in aeronautics,” he says. “You can go the military route, or you can contact private companies like Textron to learn to fly different types of unmanned aircraft systems.”

As they become more useful to a greater variety of industries, there’s no telling how fast the opportunities to work with UAVs will grow.

“There are a variety of purposes for UAVs that change every day,” says Britt. “It’s exciting to get to fly every day. We get to help people, and it’s the future.”

What is a UAV?
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is an aircraft that is controlled remotely by people on the ground. Because they are unmanned, they are light and agile enough to fly through tight spaces and dangerous areas without endangering human life. They can also get swiftly in and out of an area, one reason you may have heard about Amazon’s interest in them for quick deliveries.

Who works with UAVs?UAV Operators are the people who “pilot” UAVs from the ground. They direct a UAV’s path and guide it efficiently to the areas it needs to monitor. By watching its progress on monitoring equipment, they can see where it needs to go and how to control its safe return.

UAV Instructors train people to operate UAVs and the complex technology that guides them. This involves a lot of teaching about the speed, altitude and environments a UAV can handle, and how to perform maintenance on the UAVs that will keep them ready to fly. When that material is mastered, students begin actually operating the UAVs to get practice and build their skills.

Flight Operations Managers oversee the day-to-day activities where UAVs are flown. In addition to operating and instructing, they might create flight plans, supervise safety procedures and manage equipment maintenance. They are also responsible for upkeep of flight and maintenance logs, and track the training and certifications of UAV operators.

What does job growth look like for this industry?
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) has projected more than 100,000 jobs becoming available in this field nationwide by 2025.

Virginia is expected to be home to more than 3,000 of these positions, and recently won a bid to participate in a national pilot program that will research and develop ways to use drones safely and efficiently for public and private enterprise.

What kind of education might help me get a job in this field?
To understand the basic principles of flight and navigation, classes in Earth Science and Physics will give you a great foundation.

After high school, you’ll find lots of opportunities to learn about UAVs. This technology is growing rapidly, so there will likely be many more programs in the next few years, but already there are Virginia Tech University’s Drone Park and Liberty University’s programs in Unmanned Aerial Systems and Unmanned Aerial Systems Maintenance. Several Virginia community colleges are also offering courses in UAV operation and maintenance.

Military service and on-the-job learning with companies like Textron Systems are also a great way to get your foot in the door to this industry.

What other resources are there for someone interested in this kind of work?
Toy or hobby drones have become popular gift items; these are lighter and less powerful than the ones used professionally but they’re a great way to get acquainted with flying. Check out these guidelines for flying them responsibly.

The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association has also added a section about drones to their website. Check it out for some interesting tips and updates on flying UAVs.

You can also watch videos about how UAVs are at work all around us. See how they are helping to oversee construction jobs, find places to drill for oil, and study the habits of humpback whales.

Also be sure to check out Robot Nation, Inc’s Student Unmanned Air Systems competition, where students research, design and demonstrate unmanned flight vehicles. You can learn more about upcoming competitions, or watch this video from the 2017 event.

Drobots Company has summer camps for kids, pre-teens and teenagers who are interested in learning about UAVs. Check out their locations, including several in Virginia.