Job opportunities in private and public sectors rise around drones and the digital data they collect.
Drones are valuable and efficient tools for businesses and government agencies, according to experts forging careers around a growing drone economy. They see new uses for drones sparking job opportunities across a variety of industries.
“People say the number of drone pilots has already surpassed the number of manned aircraft pilots,” said Parimal Kopardekar, principal investigator at NASA for unmanned aerial system traffic management.
“That number is just taking off.”
PK, as Kopardekar is known to friends and colleagues, is creating an unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) traffic management (UTM) system to help avoid catastrophic collisions caused by rampant drone traffic, especially if regulations allow drones to fly beyond visual line of sight. His forward-looking work is indicative of the widely anticipated rise in drone use.
By 2020, drones will grow into a $100 billion market driven in large part by commercial and civil government sectors, according to Goldman Sachs Research. The report states that drones’ full economic potential is likely to be multiple times that number as their ripple effect reverberates through the economy.
Back in 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) Part 107 rules, requirements for anyone who wants to legally pilot a drone for commercial purposes.
Commercial and civilian use of drones is the “fastest growing field in aviation,” according to former FAA administrator Michael Huerta, who spoke at the 2017 InterDrone conference. He said more than 79,000 drones were registered for commercial and government operations in the first year since Part 107 rules took effect.
Drones Are Data Collection Machines
Kopardekar said drones can collect data about agriculture, including measuring water and determining plant health. Drones can help outdoors inspections of cell towers, industrial equipment and construction sites. They help with safety, disaster recovery and humanitarian purposes.
“Drones are becoming part of the supply chain because they can digitize whole processes,” said Kopardekar.
He sees businesses and government agencies building in-house drone expertise, and hiring outside experts and services to leverage drone technology. Building drone capabilities requires people who can pilot, manage and repair drone hardware and software, collect data and train others.
“Those are the opportunities that we are seeing on top of workaround drone research and development,” said Kopardekar.
He often works with universities across the U.S. that are adding new drones courses, including the University of Nevada, Reno, Brigham Young University, Michigan and Iowa State.
“Drones are like fruit flies for aviation,” said Kopardekar. “You can do a lot of development and iterate technology at the smaller scale. We can evolve each generation faster on a smaller scale before moving into urban air flights.”
He said large companies first took a wait-and-see approach and smaller startups led the way, but now companies like Intel, Microsoft, Google and Amazon are deeply involved with drones.
Career Path and Passion Intertwine
As commercial drone innovation and drone light shows evolved quickly into a new business for Intel, Jeff Lo saw his career path as a technical marketing engineer align with his love for aviation. In 2016, Lo became a drone pilot and event manager in Intel’s commercial drone business unit.
Known for his keep-calm-under-pressure live technology demonstrations for Intel executives, including former Intel CEO and Only the Paranoid Survive author Andy Grove, Lo got his private pilot’s license in 1990 and soon after began racing his biplane on weekends.
For Lo, getting a job working with drones was a matter of being at the right place at the right time with the right skills and a passion for flying.
“I was always interested in all things aviation, but it was never a career until I recently joined the drone team,” Lo said. “I did a little model airplane stuff when I was a kid and I played a little bit with a couple of drones before I got on the team, but not anything extensive.”
His first gig was helping pilot Intel’s Drone 100 Light Show in Indio, Calif. It was first time the FAA allowed 100 drones to fly synchronously in U.S. airspace.
“That was operated under what’s known as a Section 333 Exemption,” said Lo. “That was before the Part 107 Rules came into effect in August 2016. This kind of thing was basically outlawed, so it required a special exemption and an actual Part 61 certificated pilot.”
Late last year, he got the call to pilot an Intel Falcon 8+ commercial drone during an Arctic expedition to track polar bear behavior, feeding and migration habits. The trip allowed scientists to document the effects of climate change on the Arctic and assess the health of the entire planet.
Lo said the drones captured aerial data on the behavioral patterns of polar bears without disrupting their environment.
“Drones are much less invasive than traditional tracking methods,” he said.
Future of Drones is Autonomous
Looking into the future, Lo sees drone innovation going the way of automation.
“You can see us as we start getting to the world where there’s high speed 5G wireless connectivity that the data comes off the drone and goes straight to the cloud and the analytics start.”
He said commercial drone pilots need experience and precision flight skills. They need to arrive at a site, build a flight plan and then fly the drone to capture critical data that’s collected on the drone or transmitted wirelessly to the internet.
“You process the data to get it into either a 3D model or orthomosaic, which turns a thousand images into one big stitched together image.”
A company that needs the actionable information will likely need their own drone pilot in-house or work with a drone service provider to manage flight plans, making sure data gets into the cloud and analyzed, said Lo.
“Even though there’s a lot of automation, there’s still a lot of opportunities,” he said. “You need to figure out where to apply drones, set up the system and manage all the hardware, software and regulatory authorizations required to build and run it.”
Finding Her Own Career Path
Increasingly, drones are being used by a diverse group of individuals from different disciplines, said Kara Murphy, a certified commercial remote pilot and writer based in Michigan.
“Take what you’re good at and see how that can apply to the different problems or challenges,” Murphy advised people curious about starting a career in drones. “There’ll be lots of opportunities.”
As a college student in Los Angeles, Murphy wanted to become a music manager. She interned at advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day then Warner Bros. Records, where she worked with bands like Linkin Park and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But in 2013 she broke away to start her own consulting business, which led to working on the Flying Robot International Film Festival and writing for DroneDeploy and Drone360 Magazine. Her growing fascination with drones drove her to get a Part 107 certification in early 2017.
“I didn’t really expect to have a career in drones,” said Murphy. “I started out taking aerial photos as a fun hobby, and my work attracted more attention than my traditional photography.”
Her work with DroneDeploy and companies like Intel opened her eyes to how drones can be used across a variety of sectors.
“Opportunities are abundant, and success rests on networking, staying abreast of the latest trends and marketing your skills,” she said.
“People who learn how to safely operate a drone and gather actionable data can certainly make a decent living running their own inspections company.”
Tips for Budding Drone Pros
Murphy said success comes from getting outside and flying as often as possible.
“Having flight experience will give you an edge,” she said, adding that it’s critical to meet experts, join online forums and groups, and create a website to showcase skills and accomplishments.
Kopardekar said drones are an entryway into the aviation industry. They’re a tool for hands-on learning, and they’re more affordable compared with commercial planes.
“You can get a pilot’s license fairly inexpensively in a matter of weeks, so you are able to join the aviation community with drones then evolve from there.”