Innovation Takes Flight at Southeast with Launch of Drone Program

As the global market for commercial “drones” is surging, Southeast Missouri State University announces the launch of a new academic program in unmanned aircraft systems (drones) to meet the future demand anticipated for graduates skilled in this next-generation technology.

The Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education in June approved a new Bachelor of Science in unmanned aircraft systems to be available to students beginning in fall 2017.  The program, approved by the University’s Board of Regents in February, is designed to train students on the fundamentals to maintain, customize, acquire and use them in a commercial setting. During the coming year, the University will plan, recruit students for and implement the program.

“Innovation is the key to the future,” said Dr. Carlos Vargas, president of Southeast Missouri State University. “I would like to see students who graduate from Southeast leave this institution with the ability to innovate by developing or applying new and emerging technologies, and solve real-life problems. We hope this new program will propel them on that path.”

Dr. Brad Deken, chair of the Department of Polytechnic Studies, added, “One of our goals is to take an incoming student and prepare them for the jobs that will be available in four years. These jobs, though, are always changing. Therefore, our programs have to evolve so that students are ready for this future job market, not just what’s out there today. Unfortunately, we do not have a crystal ball to look into the future to see exactly what’s going to happen. However, it is increasingly clear that drones will play a definite role.”

Southeast’s new program is intended to train students to take advantage of existing products and resources to adapt a drone to meet specific needs. Courses in the new program will be available in the basics of programming, electrical control systems and mechanical systems, in addition to drone specific courses in flight, drone design, sensing systems, mission planning, regulations and safety.

University officials say Southeast’s unmanned aircraft system program is the only one of its kind in Missouri. Other faculty research programs using drones exist at other institutions in the state, but they are not full unmanned aircraft systems academic programs. The nearest similar program is at Kansas State Polytechnic in Salina, Kansas.

“This program is expected to be very popular with students as interest about this emerging technology is skyrocketing,” Vargas said.

Deken says that while existing regulations have limited the number of businesses jumping into drone technology, “the ones that are in there recognize the need. While programs train students on many of the aspects of drones, there aren’t many that focus on the systems as a whole. As drones continue to move out of the research phase and niche markets and into broader use, we expect the need to increase dramatically.”

About 300,000 drones were registered through the new unmanned aircraft systems registration process established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December, Deken said.

“These are personal, non-commercial drones. I’d certainly guess that hundreds of thousands more are unregistered,” he said. “On the commercial side, the costs and hurdles are much more significant, and I would expect a much lower number. What is clear is that the number of drones, whether commercial or non-commercial, is increasing rapidly.”

He said he believes the field of aerospace engineering technology will experience rapid expansion because of growth in the use of commercial unmanned aircraft systems. He said the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics, projects 11,800 aerospace engineering and operations technicians’ jobs by 2024 – a growth of 3 percent – with average median pay of $63,780 annually.

Deken said the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimates the addition of 103,000 jobs for those involved in the manufacturing and operations of drones pending FAA rule changes. Growth areas for drone technologies will likely include law enforcement, agriculture, videography and photography, surveying and inspections, and delivery of online purchases by companies such as Amazon and Wal-Mart.

“Drones are such a huge part of pop culture right now, that I would expect the new program to be very popular. Hopefully we can attract them (students) and then show the huge number of practical uses for these tools,” Deken said. “There are such a variety applications such as filming and photography, law enforcement, agriculture and construction.”

Even if demand does not evolve, students skilled in mechatronics, including programming, electrical control systems and mechanical systems, will likely be sought after by area manufacturers, Vargas said.

Deken said this ground-breaking program at Southeast will include curriculum on electrical and electronic systems, mechanical operations, software, and drone specific coverage of aviation, system design, safety, policy and sensor systems to provide a student with a well-rounded knowledge to become a professional in Unmanned Aircraft Systems and other forms of automation.

The Bachelor of Science in unmanned aircraft systems will be taught in the Department of Polytechnic Studies in Southeast’s College of Science, Technology and Agriculture and will require hiring a new faculty member, Vargas said.

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