Drones Go to College: A Look at UAVs in Higher Education

Drones Go to College: A Look at UAVs in Higher Education

As drones begin to play a significant part in a more diverse range of industries, there is a higher demand for education-based programs that provide training for drone developers, engineers, pilots and technicians. Universities around the country are jumping to fill the need by instituting drone degrees and UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) programs. From drone interest groups to masters degrees, these new learning pathways are paving the way for drone studies in higher education.

Drone Discovery

Research opportunities are one of the greatest assets universities provide for students. By involving them in real-world research, colleges equip learners with hands-on experience, preparing them for the workforce. Many of the colleges that offer drone programs have extensive research opportunities in the world of drones.

A few years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) extended permission to three specific universities to perform research with drones. At Texas A&M, projects focus on agricultural applications of drones. Their ongoing mission is:

To facilitate a broad interdisciplinary team to develop and use agricultural remote sensing technologies for actionable decisions by farmers and researchers and to make new agronomic discoveries that advance productivity and sustainability.

This research encompasses three facilities and six diverse teams made up of pilots and students from Mechanical Engineering, Ecosystem Sciences, Agricultural Engineering, Geography, Plant Breeding, Crop Science, Soil Science, Weed Science, Plant Pathology, Entomology, Animal Science, Economics and the Social Sciences. More than twenty ground-breaking publications have come from this endeavor and there is still more to discover!

The FAA also selected the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to participate in UAS research. At this research site, the mission is:

To maintain a world class research center for unmanned aircraft systems, providing integration of unique payloads and supporting pathfinder missions within government and science communities, with a special emphasis on the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.

In partnership with the Alaska State Bureau of Land Management, the team from UAF used remote sensing technologies to acquire data from the Toolik Field Station, assessing the local vegetation and developing a model for BLM to use when determining the effects of natural resource development on the Alaskan peninsula. Other projects that the team has completed include the use of UAVs to test the effectiveness of herding agents in oil spills, the development of a revolutionary UAS for biennial bridge inspection and the documentation and observation of spawning Chinook salmon, intertidal seagrass and feeding sea otters.

The final collegiate research site chosen by the FAA is Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech has a large presence in the world of drone innovation with two research centers focused on autonomous systems: the Autonomous Systems and Control Laboratory (ASCL) and the Robotics Algorithms and Autonomous Systems (RAAS) Lab. These two research centers have different purposes. ASCL describes their mission as follows:

The Autonomous Systems and Controls Laboratory (ASCL) facilitates fundamental research in the broad field of autonomous systems. Activities encompass fundamental contributions to control, estimation, decision theory, the design of novel hardware, and the practical art of operating advanced vehicles in the field. The ASCL specializes in marine robotics, and develops autonomous vehicle systems for both surface and subsurface applications.

In contrast, the RAAS Lab has three distinct arms of research: “Coordinated Detection and Tracking of Hazards with UAVs and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vehicles),” “Assignment, Routing, and Coordination of Heterogeneous Robot Teams” and “Bridge Inspection with UAVs.” Both of these laboratories have done incredible work. In fact, Virginia Tech reasserted their dominance in the development of UAVs in May 2018 by securing one of the ten coveted spots in the UAS Integration Pilot Program run by the United States Department of Transportation and the FAA. A spokesperson for Virginia Tech writes,

The team will explore applications of drone technology that stand to offer Virginians significant benefits, including package delivery, emergency management, and infrastructure inspection. The pilot will also focus on gathering feedback from the communities where testing takes place about their experiences with the program, so that technology and regulations can continue to serve the needs of the public as they evolve.

A Club Craze

Many universities, community colleges and technical schools offer opportunities for students to be a part of drone discovery and innovation even without majoring in Unmanned Aerial Systems. Drone clubs are popping up all over the country. The MIT UAV Team is one of these notable clubs. When asked what they do, the MIT UAV Team describes:

We write code, prototype electronics, and machine parts to build quadcopters for remote-controlled and autonomous flight in indoor and outdoor environments. More specifically, our projects span three domains: flight, navigation/perception, and design.

Clubs like this one allow students to get hands-on experience with drones and personalized instruction from faculty and classmates.

Drone clubs also get the opportunity to compete in drone design and racing events. One of the popular competitions is the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Design, Build, Fly competition. Over 70 student teams design an unmanned, electric, radio-controlled aerial vehicle, build it to their specifications and then fly it in a series of challenges which test the aircraft’s load capacity, maneuverability and performance, while also evaluating the pilot’s flying skills. This competition is a unique opportunity for students to get real-world experience with all aspects of the development of UAVs. In 2018, the Clarkson University SPEED (Student Projects for Engineering Experience & Design) team took first place with an aerial vehicle that weighed only eight ounces. Teams at this contest consistently present innovative UAV designs that successfully carry payloads and navigate race courses.

The Collegiate Drone Racing Association (CDRA) is another framework for college drone competition. This organization ranks college pilots based on their race performances. Their mission statement says:

The Collegiate Drone Racing Association exists to help and serve collegiate drone clubs and students across the country. It was started and is run by collegiate racers with the goal of growing drone racing at the collegiate level. Whether you are a club just starting out and looking for funding and guidance, or a student organization that is well established and looking for competitive collegiate racing, we are the organization who will be able to help you every step along the way.

Their website allows student racers to submit their best laps and compare their times with racers from other schools. More than 36 American schools are currently part of the association, competing to be the best collegiate racers around.

A Degree in Drones

If you want to major in Unmanned Aerial Systems through an accredited program, there are dozens of schools where you can major or minor in UAS. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is consistently named one of the top schools in drone training. They offer a Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science or Unmanned Systems Applications, a Master of Science in Unmanned Systems or Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Engineering and a minor in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science. Embry-Riddle states:

The Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science program provides graduates with the necessary skills and knowledge needed to become industry leaders in a variety of UAS related fields, including UAS pilots, sensor operators, mission planners and ground technicians. Students study the spectrum of the industry including hazardous operations, government regulations, surveillance, data collection, and even the engineering aspects of UAS.

Most UAV and UAS programs provide training in both private and commercial unmanned vehicles, equipping graduates for the variety of drone careers that are available — pilots, surveyors, data collection specialists, ground technicians or aerial photographers. Before entering an accredited UAV degree program, students must have confidence using principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They must be critical thinkers and problem solvers. With the right classroom tools, these skills can be developed in high school programs.

Preparing Students for Drone Degree Paths

For this reason, PCS Edventures has spent the last 30 years developing educational tools to foster student interest in STEM and train college- and career-ready learners. High school drone programs help students familiarize themselves with drones and learn about the potential drone careers of the future. Our premier Discover Drones curriculum prepares students like nothing else. 

Throughout this program, students get acquainted with every part of the drone world. Before beginning to pilot, students must build and configure their drones, troubleshooting any issues they encounter along the way. Ethics and federal regulations are very important in the world of UAVs, so we train students to be courteous and responsible drone users. Once they have mastered the engineering and regulatory material, students log extensive hours with a flight simulator and flying drones in the real world. With their hands-on experience, many students choose to get their Part 107, a certification required for commercial drone pilots. Students leave these high school or CTE classes ready for advanced UAV programs.

Click here to see what teachers have to say about Discover Drones.

Curious about drone programming?

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Autonomous Systems and Control Laboratory. (2017). Retrieved August 7, 2018, from https://uasag.tamu.edu/about/

Design Build Fly AIAA: General Information. (n.d.). Retrieved August 7, 2018, from https://www.aiaadbf.org/

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. (n.d.). Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science/Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Retrieved August 7, 2018, from http://erau.edu/degrees/bachelor/unmanned-aircraft-systems-science/

MIT UAV Team. (2016). Retrieved August 7, 2018, from http://web.mit.edu/uav/www/index.html Nelsen, E., & Stowe, M. (2018, May 9). Virginia Wins Bid to Participate in National Drone Program. Retrieved from https://vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2018/05/ictas-dronepilot.html

RAAS Lab: Research. (2016). Retrieved August 7, 2018, from https://www.raas.ece.vt.edu/research/

Texas A&M Agrilife Research. (n.d.). Unmanned Aerial Systems Project for Precision Agriculture and High Throughput Field Phenotyping. Retrieved August 7, 2018, from https://uasag.tamu.edu/about/

"Texas A&M Agrilife Research Targets Feverish Cows with Drones." (2019, February 27). YouTube video. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWVxOuLwsv4.

University of Alaska Fairbanks ACUASI. (n.d.). About Us. Retrieved August 7, 2018, from http://acuasi.alaska.edu/about