While the push to take the pilot out of the plane is still being resolved in the commercial sector, cleared drone jobs continue to open in defense.

Already, 2015 has seen the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) inching closer to opening the national airspace to the commercial sector.  It recently granted exemptions for unmanned aircraft use in real estate in Tucson and agriculture in Spokane. This followed the agency’s decision to grant six movie and television production studios permission to use drones for filming.  In all these cases, it did so under strict limits. But while it continues to debate commercial drones, unmanned aerial vehicles remain in the defense fold, which means growing opportunities for cleared drone jobs.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projects more than 70,000 new drone jobs in the next few years alone. Two factors play into this: Demand keeps growing while the talent pool remains relatively small. That shortage means cleared drone pilots, operators, software engineers and technical support personnel have great opportunities for jobs and the potential to earn six-figure salaries. If you’re interested in cleared drone jobs in the months ahead, here’s what you need to know:


This is the drone’s first decade in the higher education system. Degrees related to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) didn’t exist until 2009, when the University of North Dakota opened the door for the first class of drone-specific degrees.  Now, more than 30 universities offer UAS studies.

“Interest in drones is so hot right now, and there is so much news about the growth of jobs related to drones that we wanted to showcase some of the best universities offering degrees related to this field,” said Kendra Walker, account executive for Development Counsellors International (DCI), a global marketing and public relations firm that works on behalf of cities, states and regions on economic development issues.

DCI has put together its list of the top 10 universities offering UAS and related degrees. They are, in no particular order:

  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla., offers courses dedicated to careers as pilots/operators, sensor operators and administrators.
  • Indiana State University, Indiana, Department of Aviation Technology division offers degrees in unmanned systems operations and advanced unmanned aircraft theory.
  • Kansas State University in Salina has a bachelor of science in UAS degree program, and is one of only a handful of schools with authorization to fly UAVs in the national airspace.
  • North Dakota State University, in addition to its four-year UAS degree plan, recently began offering two-year, proof-of-concept study approved by the FAA, to help farmers in planning for crop production. UND continues to be on the cutting edge of unmanned vehicle research and engineering programs. The school also has proximity to Grand Forks Air Force Base, a major military drone installation.
  • Oklahoma State University was the first to offer graduate-level degrees in UAS engineering. OSU gears its programs toward advanced military technologies.
  • Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi, offers UAS research studies related to marine environments. Corpus Christi is one of six test sites for UAS research and development.
  • University of Cincinnati offers aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics degree programs, and is currently working on UAS research related to disaster management.
  • University of Nevada, Reno, offers bachelor’s degrees in computer science and engineering, with minors in UAS. Nevada is now the third operational FAA drone test site.

Skill requirements for cleared drone jobs

  • Pilots and operators: Unmanned vehicle pilots must meet the same requirements as commercial pilots, meaning they have to earn a commercial pilot license with an instrument rating and have a minimum of 500 hours of flight experience. Most drone pilots also are required to keep their FAA pilot licenses and ratings current. What’s the difference between drone pilots and operators? Drone pilots are responsible for take-off, maneuvering, navigating, collision avoidance and air traffic control communications. Drone sensor operators typically run the onboard systems such as cameras, sampling machines and weapons.
  • Unmanned software engineers: Most of the demand for these jobs centers on experience and knowledge in multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle flight navigation, refining sensor data, design of autonomous flight navigation, user-tracking software, and testing and validating hardware such as sensors, radio communications and motors. Job descriptions commonly require knowledge of GPS limitations, radio interference challenges, controls and optimization techniques.
  • Technicians: As the government and defense contractors increase their development and production programs, positions are cropping up for technical support. For example, Lockheed Martin’s demand for production technicians requires candidates to have experience in how to build, bench test and fly small fixed wing drones. Additional skills include knowledge of oscilloscopes, schematics, model airplane construction and components, servos and motors. A bachelor’s degree, three years in RC plane building and piloting, and experience in video equipment are also preferred.

Where to look for cleared drone jobs

According to Al Palmer, director, Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, University of North Dakota, most of the drone pilots in the school’s first graduating class went to work for Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics and Boeing.

At present, Northrop Grumman has the highest demand for cleared drone personnel, and actively searches for candidates to fill jobs as software engineers, data base administrators, cyber systems administrators and more.  And while overall, well-known defense and aerospace companies offer great opportunities, the jobs are dotted throughout the industry as demand pushes new start-ups and smaller contractors expand their programs.

Before hitting the pavement, cleared veterans would do well to get an overview of the current trends in the unmanned aerial vehicle industry to learn more about where the industry is headed.

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Tranette Ledford is a writer and owner of Ledford, LLC, which provides writing, editorial and public relations consulting for defense, military and private sector businesses. You can contact her at: Tranette@Ledfordllc.com.