As drones take off, so do your career options

 

If drones make you think of another “Star Wars” installation hitting theaters or a 10-year-old orbiting his Christmas gadget around Fluffy, think again.

These unmanned aircraft are more than just sci-fi or tech toys. Look no further than Amazon, which received federal approval this August to operate a Prime Air drone delivery fleet. Drones represent viable business opportunities in many industries.

San Jacinto College’s EDGE Center at the Houston Spaceport/Ellington Airport offers a comprehensive drone training program to help students get their Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified drone pilot license and master drone flight.

Afterward, the opportunities are endless -- from operating drones for industries to becoming an entrepreneur.

Side hustle or full-time career

Drone class
A student examines instructor John Redman's drone.

San Jac has offered the FAA drone knowledge test preparation for several years. Meanwhile, commercial drone use has skyrocketed, and the College launched the EDGE Center for aerospace industry training. Expanding its drone courses was a no-brainer.

“Drone technology has taken off,” said Dr. Janis Fowler, the College’s director of aerospace education and workforce development. “A variety of companies use this tool to provide greater workplace efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance employee safety.”

The EDGE Center offers three 16-hour drone courses in online and face-to-face formats:

  • Drone/sUAS Test Prep ($169): Prepares students to take the FAA Part 107 drone pilot license knowledge exam to get a commercial license (exam and license are about $160 extra).
  • Drone Flight Operations ($279): Teaches flight safety and drone use according to FAA regulations. Students start with drone simulation and work up to basic and advanced drone navigation through an obstacle course.
  • Drone Build Class ($599): Teaches students how to build their own basic drone. Course costs include supplies to build a drone.

Among local community colleges, San Jac is unique in offering the flight operations and drone build classes -- a comprehensive program that could lead to a side hustle or full-time career, especially when combined with Continuing and Professional Development’s entrepreneurship class.

Dr. Fowler recommends the build class for two reasons.

“If you build it, you also know how to repair it,” she said. “And you walk away with a drone you can use immediately.”

Bird’s-eye view

Some experts predict drones will enter every industry by the end of the decade.

Shopped for a house recently? Chances are you’ve seen more aerial photos in listings. Real estate and stock photographers often enlist drones for photo shoots.

Industries like oil and gas or maritime use drones to inspect cooling towers or ships for corrosion. Employers who used to send workers into dangerous areas to perform inspections can now task these small unmanned aircraft with the job and keep people safe.

Drones also come in handy for surveillance, wildlife tracking, and rescue operations.

“Hurricane Harvey really emphasized the need for using drones for search and rescue,” Dr. Fowler said. “Rescuers were able to use them to find people.”

She sees two markets for the drone classes: first, the current business community, including real estate agents, construction managers, and inspectors. These individuals can train at the College and expand their workforce skills portfolio.

A second market is San Jac credit students in real estate, photography, petrochemical, non-destructive testing, and other programs.

“They could take the basic course and have their license quickly,” Dr. Fowler said. “That makes them stand out when looking for a job.”

“It’s going to be big”

Each San Jac drone class includes no more than nine students, giving everyone plenty of hands-on experience and face-to-face learning with instructor John Redman, a 40-year flight veteran.

Redman’s flight experience stretches back to 1969, when he operated his first fixed-wing airplane by remote control as a 5-year-old. During his 20 years in the Air Force, he worked as a crew chief for F-16s and F-117A stealth fighters.

Outside San Jac, he runs Viper Aviation, a private aircraft build company, and works as a counter unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) drone pilot, training all U.S. military branches for drone combat.

Redman is excited to help build the College’s drone program and sees drone career options only expanding. He compares the current scene to the aviation explosion after the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk.

“Right now, the drone flying world is exploding,” he said. “There’s no doubt the way society is going that it’s going to be big.”

Get the EDGE

Interested in an aerospace career? Drone training is one of many options at the EDGE Center. Opened in spring 2020, the center offers aerospace manufacturing tracks for prospective and incumbent aerospace and aviation workers.

“For anything going up in the air, we’re working with industry partners to provide needed training,” Dr. Fowler said.

For more information about drone classes and other EDGE Center offerings, call 281-459-5472 or email aerospace@sjcd.edu.