Northland Community and Technical College's hangar. (Photo: Northland Community and Technical College)
American drone strikes — in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — have increased significantly under the Obama Administration. It was a drone attack that recently killed Anwar al—Awlaki, the American-born propagandist for al-Qaeda living in Yemen.
Drone pilots may be on the ground, but they still require a high degree of aviation skills and training to fly the planes. The planes also require specialized mechanics and parts. And drones aren't only for military applications. In the future, unmanned aircraft may well be used for everything from delivering packages to spreading fertilizer on fields.
The state of North Dakota is trying to position itself to become a leader in all-things-drones. But first order of business in North Dakota: don't call them drones.
"Drone? Well, mmmm, yea, that word should not be used," said Mike Nelson, with the University of North Dakota's new unmanned piloting program. He said these are complex planes that require a high-degree of piloting expertise, and the word "drone" doesn't reflect that.
"The Air Force calls them RPA's, remotely piloted aircraft. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) acknowledges them as UA's, unmanned aircraft, or UAS, unmanned aircraft systems, because that's a UA with its associated equipment, that's why it's called UAS."
That's the term they use at the University of North Dakota: UAS. Two years ago, the university became the first civilian school to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aircraft systems operations. Several other schools — in Alaska, Arizona, Florida — are also offering courses.
Nelson showed me around the new UAS training center in Grand Forks, located off-campus at the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The center includes a small room that's essentially a cockpit on the ground. Pilots and sensor operators can watch what's happening in the air through cameras on the plane.
Students don't actually fly real planes though; the FAA won't allow that. Instructor Mark Hastings showed me a simulated flight over Washington DC. He typed in coordinates and sent a plane to a specific point. He also dragged a mouse, made a click, and off the plane went to a spot near the Jefferson monument.
I suggested that it looked pretty easy, that perhaps I could've done it.
"Yea, yea. Absolutely. It's pretty straightforward to use," said Hastings.
It was also a little jarring watching an unmanned flight over Washington, even when it wasn't real.
Before I got too alarmed though, or proud of my piloting ability, another instructor, Trevor Woods, put me in my place.
"One of the things you just said is that really looked easy, something that maybe even you can do. And you don't need to be full-fledged pilot. However, because of the interaction with air space, because of the interaction with air traffic control, because of the interaction with other aircraft…"
…Because of all that, I can't fly the plane.
The undergraduate students studying unmanned aerial systems begin their coursework by learning about aerodynamics as any traditional pilot would. Then the classes branch off to study the specifics of unmanned aircraft.
The students aren't in the military, but they'll likely end up working as military contractors when they graduate. For now, that's where the jobs are.
Associate Professor Ben Trapnell set up the UAS degree program here. He used to be a Navy pilot, but he says unmanned aircraft: that's the future.
"And if you do any research with the Army, the Air Force, there are people that will tell you they may have produced or are producing their last manned fighter."
Bottomline: There's no safety risk to a pilot on the ground. And Trapnell sees a lot more than just military applications.
"I've got about 90 different uses for unmanned aircraft. But some of the big things: agricultural uses — we can get imagery to farmers a lot faster than having to wait for satellites to do the same thing — pipeline patrols, powerline patrols, there's the possibility of flying organs one place or another to get them there faster for transplants."
At the moment, the FAA won't allow unmanned planes to fly for civilian uses. Still, the state of North Dakota is positioning itself for when that day comes. It's an ideal place to experiment with this new technology — wide open space and few people. Beyond the university program, dozens of businesses are springing up to support the emerging industry. A nearby college — Northland Community and Technical College — is training students for unmanned aircraft repair.
Two unmanned aircraft are currently allowed to fly above North Dakota; they're patrolling the Canadian border.
John Priddy directs the National Air Security Operations Center in Grand Forks for US Customs and Border Protection. He said unmanned planes offer certain advantages, namely they can stay airborne for 20 hours at a time.
"That reduces a lot of things for us: cost, time to get to different areas."
Priddy said unmanned aircraft allow his team to quantify the threat level at different parts of a long border and identify where crossings are occurring.
The pilots here switch roughly every two hours. There's also a team analyzing the data sent back. Priddy asked one of his team members to pull up an example of the type of imagery the planes send back. Moments later, one of Priddy's team members zooms in on a picture of tire tracks and footprints to see where earth has been overturned.
This was all amazing stuff. But I gotta say, for the pilots, it seemed, well, kinda boring. And tame. I suggested this to John Priddy. He flew Apaches in the Army before he piloted unmanned aircraft.
"It's the most challenging airplane I've ever flown," said Priddy. "You have to learn different cues for landing, and taking off that matter, but in particular landing, because you don't have any aural perception, meaning you don't hear the increase in the motor when you push the throttle forward, you don't feel the acceleration."
All the unmanned pilots I spoke with said more or less the same thing: It's not the same rush as being up in the clouds, but you still have to be completely engaged in what you're doing.
There is one compelling reason for young, would-be pilots to choose a cockpit on the ground: job opportunities. There aren't a lot of pilots who can do this. And, if and when the FAA allows unmanned civilian aircraft to take to the sky, there will be an even greater demand for pilots on the ground.