According to a recent AUVSI report, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has now approved over 1,000 commercial drone permits, up from just twelve at the start of 2015. However, this accelerated rate of approval – while good for the businesses poised to take advantage of this emerging technology – poses a critical issue, and one that’s growing in importance, for the nation as a whole, according to John Minor, Provost of Unmanned Vehicle University (UVU), the only University in the world licensed to offer graduate degree programs in Unmanned Systems Engineering.
“The good news is that the FAA has finally streamlined the commercial drone application approval process, allowing companies of any size, in virtually every industry, to leverage all that’s offered by drones,” said Minor. “However, in many ways, the FAA has now put the ‘cart in front of the horse’ in that they have yet to establish any formal education or training standards in order to operate a drone for commercial purposes – so what we have now is hundreds to thousands of operators, FAA-certified to fly drones, without the adequate training or education to do so responsibly and efficiently.”
Minor’s concern is grounded in the fact that the prerequisite to operating a drone commercially in the United States is to earn/maintain a Sport Pilot Certificate, which does not require or mandate any drone-specific education or training – but rather training on any light-sport aircraft: maximum weight of 1320 lbs (land) or 1430 lbs (sea), maximum speed of 120 knots, and maximum seating capacity of two persons, among other specifications.
“In my opinion, allowing those with a Sport Pilot Certificate, but with no formal drone training, to operate drones commercially is the equivalent of allowing anyone with a drivers license to legally operate a motorcycle, without any additional training,” stressed Minor. “They’re two very different vehicles and thus should require unique sets of training and education to become licensed.”
The FAA is in the process of establishing and implementing standardized commercial drone education curricula. In the meantime, Minor stresses that it’s up to individual operators – and the businesses, universities, and governments that employ them – to seek drone education and training through entities like Unmanned Vehicle University. The unique benefits of drone technology are limited by the capability (which includes the education, training, and experience) of the engineer, technician, and operator.
While the lack of standardized commercial drone education poses potential aviation security risks, Minor believes an opportunity exists for operators looking to differentiate themselves from those with just a Sport Pilot Certificate and limited drone training. “Completing drone education and training before it’s required by the FAA; you can uniquely brand yourself not just as a certified drone operator, but as an expert in drone technology and operations with either a Professional Certificate, Doctorate of Science in Unmanned Systems, or a Master of Science in Unmanned Systems Engineering,” said Minor. “With a professional certificate or graduate degree credentials attached to your name, you can expect a high demand for your expert services!”