The future is here and unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, have expanded beyond military use and begun to change everything from how we film movies and cover sporting events to how we save endangered species, fight forest fires, monitor pipelines and farm more efficiently.
Drones in precision farming, for instance, are able to tell down to the leaf of a particular plant in a field whether it’s healthy, too wet, too dry, or in need of fertiliser.
Experts say their use in a growing number of industries will lead to more jobs: drone pilots, systems engineers, design and manufacture work, sensor operators, technicians, photographers, and more.
“This is the next chapter of the aviation industry,” said Tom McMahon, vice president of advocacy and public affairs at The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a non-profit organisation based in Arlington, Virginia, that represents 7,000 individuals from 55 countries. “Unmanned systems don’t change much from manned. You still need people in the control centre. Drones are not replacing but actually complementing manned aviation.”
Drones are not replacing but actually complementing manned aviation.
In South Africa, for instance, UDS (Pty) Ltd, employs 13 people from senior drone pilots to sensor operators and flies drones mostly at night to track rhino poachers in the KwaZulu-Natal province and Kruger National Park. Click on the arrow above to see how UDS is using drone pilots to save the rhino.
“There are now just 21,000 rhinos left in the world,” said UDS CEO Otto Werdmuller Von Elgg, who is broadening the business to include engineering services and the monitoring of illegal gold mining. There had been up to 20 incidents of poaching a month but now in the areas UDS monitors “that has been reduced to zero”.
Unmanned aircraft systems have been used almost exclusively by the military since the early 1900s, and Japan has implemented drones for precision farming since the late-1980s. It’s only in recent years that drones have become both technologically feasible and economically viable for the civil and commercial sector. Today, many models can be run off smartphones and bought off-the-shelf from electronics retailers for around $1,000 for a professional quality drone. “There’s not as much difference as there used to be,” McMahon said, noting that at the high end, the cost for drones with sophisticated platforms approaches six figures.
Globally, the world market for piloted drones is forecast to more than double by 2022 and be a 4bn euros ($4.37bn) business per year, according to a European Commission impact assessment report issued in December in conjunction with its proposal to gradually create a legal framework for the safe operation of drones. Europe would represent about 25% of the world market, translating into some 150,000 jobs by 2050.
“[Drones] represent a tremendous opportunity ... If we manage to unleash their full potential, drones could create thousands of new jobs in Europe,” EU Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc told BBC Capital.
If we manage to unleash their full potential, drones could create thousands of new jobs in Europe.
Similarly in the US, the commercial drone industry is expected to add more than $82bn to the American economy by 2025 and create more than 100,000 new jobs, according to a 2013 AUVSI report.
“For the next 40-50 years there’s going to be guaranteed jobs,” for those with special skills as a drone pilot or systems engineer, said John Minor, provost of Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix, Arizona, which though not yet accredited, offers an online course plus a certificate through doctoral degrees. “We’ve had people take their certificates and walk into Lockheed Martin and Boeing and get jobs. We know drone pilots making $80,000 to $100,000 per year here in the US.”
Drones are being used in a variety of operations, including:
• Aerial photography/surveying/inspection
• Real Estate
• Agricultural monitoring
• Infrastructure inspection
• Film making
• Wildfire mapping
• Utility inspection
• Search and rescue
• Emergency management
• Environmental monitoring
• Oil and gas exploration
• Weather monitoring
Source: The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International
Getting a job
Academic programmes from certificates to doctorates have been developed to meet the demand.
“Schools and colleges in the US [are] adding unmanned training programs, exclusively for unmanned systems or as part of aviation training at the college level and also the community college level,” McMahon said, pointing to the Assure, an alliance of 22 universities comprising the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Center of Excellence for UAS Research at Mississippi State University.
Regulation in the biggest barrier
Legislation and regulation remain the biggest barriers to commercial success.
There are no international laws dictating air space, so nations are currently evaluating aviation safety requirements independently before deciding how unmanned aircraft systems will be operated and under what restrictions in their own countries. Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, have already adopted national rules for the operations of civil drones.
Part of the problem is that “today’s aviation rules and oversight system were developed for a much smaller population and number of movements than what we can expect in the future”, the EU Commission report said.
In the US, by law, the Federal Aviation Administration requires any aircraft operation in national airspace to hold a certificate and registered aircraft, a licensed pilot and operational approval.
The FAA is expected to issue a final drone regulation for small unmanned aircraft systems by midyear to address much broader commercial use. The proposed rule would mean obtaining a special airworthiness certificate and keeping drones flying below 500ft, within the visual line of sight and only during daylight hours.
In May 2014, as a stop-gap measure, the FAA began accepting petitions for case-by-case exemptions to operate drones commercially in the US National Airspace System. To date, the FAA has granted nearly 3,000 exemptions, across 25 industries with different applications.
“When [the FAA] publishes those [new laws] you will see exponential growth unlike anything we’ve experienced,” Minor said.
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