- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 26, 2012

For all of the skeptics and detractors it has produced, the drone industry also has its vocal supporters.

Few are louder than Jerry LeMieux, a retired Air Force colonel, commercial airline pilot, college lecturer and, most recently, the founder of the world’s first university dedicated solely to unmanned systems education.

“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to do something good for the unmanned systems community,” he said at the drone sector’s Las Vegas trade show earlier this month.

“It’s something that I look at as very important. What’s my motivation for doing this? Everybody has a little bit of a teacher in them. Now, I’m finally able to do it on a larger scale.”

Col. LeMieux’s school is one of several trying to get off the ground, literally and figuratively, with colleges and universities across the country seeking a piece of what is expected to be a business boom in the drone market in the coming years.

Unmanned Vehicle University received its international accreditation in July, and while it currently offers only online courses, Col. LeMieux envisions a sprawling campus in Lake Havasu, Ariz.

The university teaches a variety of subjects, including unmanned vehicle design, system fundamentals.

It’s yet another example of the unmanned industry’s growth, a boom that’s only just begun.

Drones are now available only to military and law enforcement agencies, but the Federal Aviation Administration is gearing up to begin granting personal and commercial licenses in 2015.

Before that happens, the FAA must craft detailed training requirements and certifications for future drone operators.

In a statement earlier this month, the agency stressed that “pilot training and medical requirements” will be established as part of drone integration into the nation’s crowded airspace.

Col. LeMieux, along with other institutions in the traditional world of higher education, are angling for FAA certification, so that after obtaining a degree, an operator will be fully licensed by the federal government.

Such certification, however, isn’t a sure thing.

“I take risks,” Col. LeMieux said. “That’s a risk, that I’ll get FAA certification within a year. But that’s my goal, and I’m building a program to go in that direction. … A lot of schools are trying to get into this game.”

One school already in the game is the University of North Dakota, which offers its own degree programs in the field of unmanned systems. Like Col. LeMieux’s university, the school is banking on becoming an FAA-certified training center.

“That’s the intent. We have a long track record of working with the FAA. We worked closely with them in developing the [drone] program and talked with them about the needed knowledge base,” said William H. Semke, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who partners with the school’s Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research.

“What training will [pilots] need? That’s going to change as time progresses. But right now, we’re right in the middle of that,” he said.

Dozens of other institutions are staking their claim in the drone game. The University of Texas at Austin did so in a high-profile way earlier this summer, when professor Todd Humphreys and his students successfully hijacked a drone to demonstrate holes in current safety protocols.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Matt Waite took a different approach and founded the first-ever “drone journalism lab” to explore the opportunities — and inevitable ethical conflicts — of using unmanned crafts in the news-gathering business.

Such programs, analysts say, will grow in number dramatically over the next several years, as drones come to the forefront.

Educators such as Col. LeMieux plan to take full advantage, offering students the chance to be a part of a technological revolution.

“We’re looking to the future,” he said. “We are trying to develop the future leaders of this industry. When you graduate from this school, you will have a job. If you’re a fighter pilot, the war is winding down, so what are you going to do? You can go to a school, get 50 hours of flight training, and now you have a degree in unmanned aerial vehicle operations.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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