DAYTONA BEACH – Secured inside a room you need a U.S. passport to enter is a modern arcade of war machines.
It looks like a gamer’s paradise: A comfortable tan leather captain’s chair sits behind four computer monitors, an airplane joystick with a red “fire” button, a keyboard and throttle control. The games here have great implications. Across the world, a $20 million Gray Eagle drone armed with four Hellfire missiles, ready to make a sortie into hostile territory is taking commands from a workstation like this one. A graduate from this room on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach could be in that other room in as little as six months with a master’s degree in piloting drones, his hand on the joystick, making $150,000 a year.
Welcome to the new basic training, where the skills to fight the War of Tomorrow are taught in private classrooms today. Embry-Riddle this fall became the first in the country to offer post graduate education in this field.
“We’re trying to prepare our students so they’re ready to operate at the highest levels,” said Dan Macchiarella, department chair of aeronautical sciences at Embry-Riddle.
But as with so many things that begin with a military purpose, these unmanned vehicles are coming in all shapes and sizes – from full-sized planes to mini helicopters less than 2 feet across – to play a role in the civilian world.
They are used by law enforcement to patrol the borders, to nab shark-fin poachers off the Galapagos Islands, to hover above the trees and count populations of endangered birds. The University of Florida built its own drone to monitor wildlife.
There are storm-chasing drones. Fire-fighting drones. Drones to report real-time traffic. Congress has ordered the FAA to issue new regulations for this impending civilian army of unmanned vehicles.
Look up in the sky: The drones are coming.
“It’s going to grow exponentially once the law catches up,” said Josh Olds, an Embry-Riddle graduate and drone flight instructor at Embry-Riddle who worked with government contractors overseas before returning to help run the school’s flight simulation lab.
The government budget for drone warfare has gone from a relatively paltry $667 million in 2002 to more than $3.9 billion, according to a Congressional Research Service report. And the number of drones in military service has shot from 167 to nearly 7,500 – and climbing.
Where there is a new skill to learn, there is soon a teacher.
Some will simply enlist in the military to train in piloting drones. For the civilians, there is now college.
In 2011, the University of North Dakota was the first to graduate a class – of five students – with a bachelor of science in unmanned systems. In May, Kansas State awarded its first diploma.
Embry-Riddle had hoped to attract 200 students within the first five years of the program. Just three semesters in, they have 120 students. Now, they expect they’ll have to limit their enrollment to 500 students a year.
“It’s taking off like a rocket,” Macchiarella said. “We had students go through the program as fast as they could to get out there.”
Already, through its ROTC program, Embry-Riddle graduates more pilot cadets than any other institution outside the military academies. Of its 5,000 students, about a quarter are involved with the ROTC program. Most have financial aid to offset the $30,000 annual tuition.
The nature of this fly-by-computer-screen technology attracts the young gamer-type, Macchiarella said – much different from the soldiers of his generation, when he retired as an Army lieutenant colonel.
But he saw the change coming as he worked in the battle labs where the military flew some of the first advanced unmanned aircrafts, the so-called Hunter UAV spy planes with 29-foot wingspans.
“My generation grew up with Vietnam on TV,” said Macchiarella, who flew Apache helicopters. “But this spins off from gaming. Just look at it. It looks like gaming.”
In an economy hungry for jobs, students are going where the work is. And right now, drones are hot.
“I didn’t get into flying airplanes to do this, but I fell into it because it was lucrative,” said John Bounds, a 2006 Embry-Riddle graduate who manages the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flight lab and serves as a flight instructor. “The salary this offered was competitive with what I could make as a pilot with 15 years experience.”
Two years out of school, Bounds was hired by a government contractor, General Dynamic Information Technology, to train civilians and soldiers to fly drones at Libby Army Airfield in Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
Bounds was hired specifically because of his experience with General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle, a $21.5 million turbo-diesel unmanned plane with a 56-foot wingspan, which can carry four Hellfires or eight stinger missiles, fly at 170 mph, up to 29,000 feet and 30 hours straight.
“Privates straight out of basic training, we trained them on the system, then they deployed,” Bounds said.
Along with the ubiquitous Predator, it is the among the most popular drone used by the military. Embry-Riddle is looking into purchasing a Gray Eagle for training, which would take off from the adjacent Daytona Beach International Airport, Bounds said.
At Embry-Riddle, there are two tracks for students interested in drones: one to build and one to fly.
On a recent blustery Monday, a remote-controlled boat shaped like a floating box braved the choppy waters in the expansive fountain outside the Embry-Riddle president’s office, when a 2-foot-wide helicopter with four blades – a “quad copter” – lifted off from the back of the boat.
Will Shaler, 21, kept it aloft via remote control and landed it back safely – and dry. Soon, these two remote-controlled systems will work in tandem, and completely autonomously, to complete a task laid out in a contest sponsored by a government contractor.
The goal is to make drones that execute particular tasks, from mowing the lawn at the neighboring airport at night to a tiny one that can hover through a window, steal a thumb-drive off a desk and replace it with a phony before making its escape.
And for this, they rely on students like Shaler to design them.
“Nobody’s going to be buying manned fighter planes in a few years,” said Shaler, a mechanical engineering senior who wants to work in drone robotics.
“We feel UAVs are an integral part of the future of aviation,” Embry-Riddle President John Johnson said, coming out to watch the robotics students maneuvering outside his office.
But right now, there’s a catch with UAVs: No one can legally use the airspace to fly unmanned aircraft for profit.
The industry is waiting for the FAA to expand the usable U.S. airspace for drones. The regulations now were designed for hobbyists flying remote-controlled airplanes and helicopters under 400 feet.
There are only a andful of exceptions for private entities doing research and development, and flight training or demonstrations. The FAA grants a Certificate of Authorization, which permits a limited area for a particular aircraft. But only 327 are approved in the country at last count, in February.
“Right now, it’s kind of in the ‘Wild West’ stage,” Macchiarella said.
And of course, there are concerns over privacy.
This year, Florida passed a law that bars local law enforcement from using drones without a warrant, unless there’s the threat of a terrorist attack, and says the information can’t be used as evidence in court. (Three Florida law enforcement agencies – Miami-Dade police, and Orange and Polk counties sheriff’s offices – are authorized to use drones.)
“There’s an industry that wants to sell hundreds and thousands of these drones all over the country, and before they’re up in the sky, I thought it was a good idea to say, here are the rules in Florida,” Florida Sen. Joe Negron, who sponsored the bill, told the Miami Herald in April.
The days of unmanned vehicles whizzing overhead are drawing near.
The war games are coming home. Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, http://www.pbpost.com