Two student pilots are seated shoulder to shoulder before a bank of video monitors, maneuvering an unmanned aircraft by keyboard and mouse as the drone descends toward a virtual runway in a suburban landscape.
Aaron Gabrielson and Andrew Regenhard, aviation students at the University of North Dakota and self-proclaimed video-game junkies, could just as well be sitting on a couch playing Xbox. But instead of tapping their fingers on a controller, they’re learning to fly the plane and use onboard equipment that includes a camera with a zoom lens.
“Some people argue that nothing is going to be like flying an actual airplane. Granted, looking down and seeing you’re 5,000 feet above the ground is pretty exciting, but I’ve always been addicted to video games, and this is awesome,” Regenhard said.
Mastering the Corsair simulator is the first practice course for the two trainees, who are among hundreds of student pilots nationwide preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet. They and their classmates are eager to cash in on the booming market for drone operators that’s expected to develop after more unmanned aircraft become legal to fly in U.S. airspace, which could happen in the next few years.
The university’s unmanned aircraft degree program, the nation’s first, exploded from five students in 2009 to 120 students last year. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Kansas State have since added similar programs. Dozens of other schools offer some courses in what’s known as UAS — unmanned aircraft systems — which range from drones as big as small planes to 2-foot-wide mini-helicopters.
The first UAS master’s degree program, focused on engineering, was launched at Embry-Riddle’s Daytona Beach, Fla., campus this fall.