The Military-Education-Drone Complex in the U.S.

In an age of austerity and financial gloom, what better way to kick-start the economy than droneducation? Jobs!

Time reports on one the U.S.’ major national hubs for training would-be drone pilots, the University of North Dakota. North Dakota, of course, being the state that saw the first ever police arrest assisted by Predator drone.

The school offers a degree on unmanned-aircraft-systems operations. Today, there are 120 students enrolled in the program, and 50 students have so far graduated with curricula and projects sprouting across the country.  With America’s skies set to open up to unmanned vehicles in 2015, it is perhaps unsurprising than a third of applications for FAA “certificate of authorization” to fly drones have come from college campuses. 

“We get a lot of inquiries from students saying, ‘I want to be a drone pilot,’” says Ken Polovitz, the assistant dean in the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “The Grand Forks region has become a hotbed for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).”

The UAS operations major combines both manned and unmanned flight training.

Students first earn a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine and instrument ratings… After they’ve proved their traditional piloting abilities, they begin learning about unmanned aircraft. Different classes focus on operating drone cameras, ground systems and communications platforms. In the major’s capstone course, students complete 19 lessons — about 70 hours — in a flight simulator modeled after Boeing’s Scan Eagle, an unmanned aircraft system that’s been in military use since 2004. As a final project, students draft a mock application for drone flight, developing a flight-operations and safety plan that could hopefully pass muster if submitted to the FAA.

What can be expected of graduates? Some go into drone research, others defense contractors, military, and law enforcement operations.

The University of North Dakota is currently engaged in a research project with the Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Department, training police officers on the use of drones and partnering with police on missions that cover a 16-county area.
Such a proliferation of drone testing sites is starting to run up against legislation underwritten by privacy fears. At least “32 states have pending legislation limiting drone flight, including North Dakota”. Perhaps as a response, North Dakota do offer classes on drone law and privacy issues.  After all, “the school’s unmanned-aircraft projects have netted $20 million in state and federal funding since 2008”.

Outside of North Dakota, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Missouri are using drones to teach its students about new journalist techniques.

“People are starting to recognize it’s not a fad,” says Mark Hastings, the chief pilot for unmanned aircraft systems at North Dakota. “It is the next evolution of aviation. It’s appealing to students to know that they’re going to be getting in on still a very young industry. That provides a lot of potential opportunities.”

Of course, most drones are simplistic vehicles that amount to little more than a camera in the sky. And the police regularly use helicopters and networks of CCTV to monitor citizens. But this complacency fundamentally misses the world that we are actively creating – the reality we are setting in motion by investing millions of dollars in “securitzing” everything.

The best form of security is one that addresses inequality, poverty, and education. Drones only target the endpoint of a failure to fundamentally invest in humanity.

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