This is a ranking of the 15 Best Drone Training Colleges in America. A Drone, also known as an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) or an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), is an unmanned aircraft that is flown remotely, and ranges from small personal aircrafts that can be lifted by one person and cost a few hundred dollars, to military surveillance and attack aircrafts that cost over $21 million, can have up to 130 foot wingspan, and can be equipped with missiles.
Factors that were considered in the ranking were academic reputation, hands-on drone training in piloting/engineering, variety of courses, and accreditation. As always at Successful Student, this ranking was considered from the student’s point of view. The terms “Drone”, “UAV” and “UAS” are used interchangeably.
The commercial and military impact UAV’s will have in the coming years is very significant, creating more than 100,000 new jobs by 2025, with an economic impact of $82 billion, according to a 2013 report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (a group representing 7,500 individual members and 600 corporations). The U.S. budget for drone warfare has increased from $667 million in 2002 to more than $3.9 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. And the number of drones in military service has increased from 167 to nearly 7,500.
Career opportunities for students with drone training include military drone pilot, firefighter, disaster relief, search and rescue, law enforcement, oil and gas operations, seismic study, border patrol, traffic reporting, storm chasing, agriculture, package delivery, forestry, engineering, computer science, commercial contractors, film, and other industries. Companies that hire drone engineers and pilots include aerospace and defense companies Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, and aircraft manufacturer Boeing. NASA is currently working on an air traffic control system for drones, and online retail giant Amazon is ready to deliver packages via drones.
As of June, 2016, the FAA released the guidelines for commercial use of drones. The rules apply to drones weighing less than 55 pounds. These rules specify operations below 400 feet (unless within 400 feet of a structure), within the line-of-sight of the operator, and during daylight hours and twilight (30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset, with unit-collision lighting), and a maximum groundspeed of 100 mph. The FAA requires a certificate for operations: “A person operating a small UAS must either hold a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or be under the direct supervision of a person who does hold a remote pilot certificate (remote pilot in command).”
Colleges across America are meeting the demand for drone training by offering certificates, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees on piloting, engineering, and repairing drones.
Featured Online Degrees
1. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Daytona Beach, FL)
Through the ROTC program, Embry-Riddle graduates more pilot cadets than any other institution outside military academies. Of its 5,000 students, about a quarter are involved with the ROTC program. Embry-Riddle was the first in the nation to offer post graduate education in drones. At Embry-Riddle, there are two options for students interested in drones—one to build drones, and one to fly them.
The Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science requires completing 122 credit hours, which can be taken over 8 semesters, and students can select the pilot or non-pilot track. The Master of Science in Unmanned and Autonomous Systems Engineering is an engineering degree in which students study unmanned and autonomous aircrafts, cars, surface and underwater vessels, and industrial robots. The Master’s in Unmanned Systems is a non-engineering degree which concentrates on policy design, ethics, and systems management. Classes are offered online and on campus at Daytona Beach, Florida and Prescott, Arizona.
2. Oklahoma State University (Stillwater, OK)
Known as America’s Healthiest Campus, Oklahoma State was also the first University to offer a concentration in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) at the graduate level. Students may choose between the Master’s of Science or PhD in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. Applicants at the Master’s level are required to have a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering, and PhD applicants must have a Master’s degree. The curriculum covers design, construction, and test flights for UAS’s.
Test flights are performed at a dedicated UAS facility that includes an aircraft hangar, control room, 2 runways, and a 1 mile/1 mile flight area of open land. Over 200 custom aircrafts have been launched at this facility, including a few world records. Students may also have the opportunity to work with the University Multispectral Laboratories at Ft. Sill, OK, giving them unique access to restricted airspace. Research opportunities are abundant through the UAS program, which covers a wide area of topics, including: UAS structure and design, flight path management, communications and operations, and aerodynamics.
3. Indiana State University (Terre Haute, IN)
Indiana State University was established in 1865 and has grown with the times, with now over 100 majors and state-of-the-art technology. In 2013 their Center for Unmanned Systems and Human Capital Development was created. Indiana State offers a Bachelor of Science in Unmanned Systems and a Minor in Unmanned Systems. This program provides education in using air, land, and marine vehicles.
49 credits are required for the major: 21 credits in Unmanned Systems Core Courses, and 28 credits in Aviation Department Core Courses. Classes include The Mechanics of Unmanned Systems, Principles of Flight for Non-Aviation Majors, Private Pilot Theory, Advanced Unmanned Aerial Systems Operations, Payloads and Sensors, Aviation Safety Management Systems, and Air Traffic Control Systems. Students are instructed in the theory, functions, and regulations regarding UAS’s.
4. Kansas State University, Salina (Salina, KS)
KSU may be a small campus University, but it is well known for its elite aviation program. There are more Master Certified Flight Instructors at Kansas State than any other University. To top it off, the school is ideally located directly across from a 12,000-foot runway. Being so dedicated to aviation, KSU offers a full 4 year Bachelor’s degree in Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Students will learn basic theory and assembly through test flying their own UAS’s.
The degree requires 127 credit hours for completion. Unique to KSU’s program is the option for students to participate in real missions lead by the Department of Defense. This allows students access to restricted airspace at the Smoky Hill Weapons Range and the National Airspace System. Research opportunities for students include the evaluation of Federal Aviation Administration standards for aircraft of less than 55lbs and power infrastructure inspection. The fleet at KSU has a variety of crafts with different features such as fixed-wing and rotary-wing, gas motor and electric motor, and numerous data collection methods (infrared, thermal, and electro-optical).
5. University of North Dakota (Grand Forks, ND)
As the state’s oldest and largest University, UND offers more educational programs than any other in North Dakota. A Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics with a Major in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations is just one of many intriguing options for students. UND has over 40 years experience in aviation education and can offer state of the art technology and access to restricted airspace over Camp Grafton South Training Area, R5401.
Thanks to a low population density, over 13,000 square miles of airspace is available for test flights and operations. A total of 125 credit hours are required to complete this program, which includes the core curriculum. Some of the Aviation courses include: Aviation Safety, Flight Physiology, Ground and Sensor Systems, and Advanced Aerodynamics. Prior to enrollment, students must provide proof of USA citizenship for some of the higher level courses, without exception. Minors in Professional Flight, Aviation Management, and Business Aviation are also excellent options for students.
Liberty University is one of the most well known Christian Universities that provides largely online education. The Bachelor of Science classes are no exception. Students can pursue flight training with the convenience of flexible online courses. The Unmanned Aerial Systems is a hybrid program with both online and on campus required work and is offered at the Bachelor’s level.
Students will learn to construct and operate the two most common control systems for UAS’s, and will receive Dragon Eye UAS certification (which is based on a Department of Defense training program for Marines). Students will use flight simulators as part of their training in addition to test flights within Liberty University airspace. Courses will cover topics such as Military Intelligence and Information Security.
7. Troy University (Troy, AL)
Troy University was initially founded in 1887 under the name Troy State Normal School as an institution for educating teachers. Today Troy University offers a variety of courses through 5 different colleges plus a graduate level school. In the fall of 2014 Troy opened up a new minor to students in unmanned aerial systems as part of the Bachelor of Applied Science in Resource and Technology Management – Aviation Ops.
The full Bachelor’s degree requires 60 hours course credits, not including general education requirements, in addition to 5 elective credit hours. The emphasis in unmanned aerial systems will require an additional 18 hours course credit. Classes for UASs include Principles of Design, Human Factors: Operation and Accidents, and Ethical Considerations for UAS Operations. Many other options are also available to students within the subject of aviation.
8. Lewis University (Romeoville, IL)
As relatively young University, founded in 1932, Lewis University has had a special interest in the area of aviation from the beginning. Though it has a strong Catholic and Lasallian heritage, all students are welcomed and encouraged by accomplished professors within their respective fields. The unmanned aerial systems Bachelor degree has been consistently ranked in the top ten programs by U.S. News & World Report.
The University has the added benefit of an on-site airport for operations and test flights and boasts of the most modern, hi-tech aviation education centers in the country. Students anticipate the Senior Capstone project of designing and testing their own UAS. Upon graduation, students will have earned their Private and Commercial Pilot Certificate’s for single engine lands. A total of 128 credit hours are required for graduation, including core requirements. 80 of these credits will be directly related to the UAS degree. The ethical concerns for drones are heavily emphasized given the conservative values of the school. As a minor, only 22 credit hours will be related to UAS study as the program is meant to be only a basic introduction. Some background in the field of aviation is required to be admitted to the minor program.
9. University of Louisiana at Monroe (Monroe, LA)
Aviation as a degree has been offered at the University of Louisiana since 1939 when it joined universities around the country to help train pilots for WWII. Since then, the aviation degree has grown significantly to include a broad range of knowledge in the field. Unmanned Aircraft Systems have become a part of that program since the fall of 2013. Students have the option of pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation with a Concentration in Unmanned Aircraft Systems.
A post-baccalaureate certificate in UAS is also available. Courses will cover UAS technology and application. Many within the field are anticipating the benefit UAS’s will have to the area of agriculture. Students will be required to demonstrate mastery of material by creating appropriate flight plans for a UAS. All students within this program are also encouraged to take business courses. Those who major in Aviation are required to complete at least 15 credit hours of business classes and to minor in business.
10. Northwestern Michigan College (Traverse City, MI)
Home to Dennos Museum Center, Lobdell’s Teaching Restaurant, and Roger’s Observatory, Northwestern Michigan College has many exciting opportunities for students. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operator training is among those numerous opportunities. A minimum of 64 credit hours are required for an Associate in Applied Science Degree within Aviation.
For specialized training in UAS’s, a basic knowledge of Aviation is strongly encouraged. Students will receive frequent hands-on training in a variety of UAS technology, including advanced commercial-grade equipment. Students may also further specialize in Engineering Technology which will further detail the programming basics, electronics, hydraulics, and robotics of UAS’s. The college is excited to be assisting the FAA draft operator guidelines for drones and is anticipating great progress in the future.
11. University of Nevada, Reno (Reno, NV)
The University of Nevada has been consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report a National Tier 1 University. Located within driving distance of the beautiful Lake Tahoe, the barren Black Rock Desert, and Yosemite National Park is a bonus as well. Beginning in January of 2014, the school had more exciting news to announce to entice students from all areas, namely the opening of the minor degree program in unmanned autonomous systems through the College of Engineering.
This minor is available to students who are enrolled in the Computer Science and Engineering program, the Electrical and Biomedical Engineering program, or the Mechanical Engineering program. A minimum of 18 credits are required for the minor, with no more than 9 of those credits overlapping with the chosen major. The Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center website is a great location for further information on research opportunities, educational outreach, and labs and centers.
12. Middle Tennessee State University (Murfreesboro, TN)
Middle Tennessee State University has made a significant investment in its science program with the new 250,000-square-foot, $147 million Science Building. Students can expect state-of-the-art technology and frequent hands-on experiential learning. As of the fall of 2015 students will be able to receive a Bachelor’s Degree in Aerospace with a concentration in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations.
MTSU recently purchased 25 planes for the Aerospace department with the most updated technology for students to master. The NASA funded FOCUS lab is another excellent resource for students within this field. In addition to core Aerospace courses, the UAS concentration includes constructing and operating a UAS, manned pilot training, and partnership opportunities with participating industries. Many classes in UAS were offered in 2014 as well, but only as electives.
13. Unmanned Vehicle University (Phoenix, AZ)
Though UVU is not yet accredited, it is the first University in the world to offer Certificate through Doctoral degrees in Unmanned Systems Engineering, and Unmanned Systems Project Management. The school is licensed by the State of Arizona Board of Education. The UAS Project Management program is also offered completely online. Instructors are all highly educated and experienced with PhD’s in Engineering and combined flight experience of over 60,000 hours.
Classes are unique in that there are few to no textbooks. Material is derived mainly from the instructors knowledge and experience. Research opportunities are plentiful including collision avoidance and technology security. One sample program is the drone pilot training course that totals 46 course hours, broken down into 3 sections. The first 16 hours cover the basics of UAS topics, the next 10 hours will be spent flying over 40 different UAS’s in a simulator, the final 16 hours will be real flight training at a specified center. The doctoral and master’s degrees focus on the engineering and program/project management of drones.
14. Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology (Tulsa, OK)
Though also a relatively young school, founded in 1928, the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology’s main focus has been to train successful pilots. Many of the instructors have been recognized as the best in the country and provide experienced based, hands-on education. The certification for a professional pilot’s licence can be completed in as little as one year.
Over 90,000 pilots and technicians have already been trained through Spartan college, and are highly sought after in the professional field. Diploma, associate and bachelor’s degree programs are available to students, including the newest Unmanned Aircraft Systems classes. Many classes have a unique focus on the electronic systems of the UAS’s. The Aviation Electronics Technology associated degree can be completed in 16 months and covers both traditional aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles. Students will be required to assemble and program their own UAS, electronic trainer, and FM receiver.
15. SKYOP (Canandaigua, NY)
SkyOp is an educational organization located in New York that has partnered with Monroe Community College and Mohawk Community College to offer instruction and training in small unmanned aerial systems.
A. Monroe Community College, Corporate College (Rochester, NY)
Training Certificate is awarded after completing six 3-hour sessions. Monroe was the first school in New York educating pilots and technicians to operate small unmanned aerial vehicles (drones small enough to be lifted by one person). Students will train using Syma X5C Quadcopters, AeroSIM flight simulators, DJI Phantoms, 3DRobotics and custom hexi-copters with dual radio controls and first person video.
Training will include learning to apply multi-rotors, fixed wing and autonomous flight systems, practice flying with a computer simulator, and hands-on models and multi-rotor drones. The class addresses current FAA rules and regulations, plus operational risk and safety issues.
B. Mohawk Valley Community College, Center for Corporate and Community Education (Utica, NY)
MVCC is one of the larger 2 year community colleges in the Utica area. The college offers a non-credit training program for Unmanned Aerial Systems. A wide variety of basic topics are covered, including different flight systems.
Each student receives a small quadcopter and flight simulator software to practice with during and after the completion of the program. In the spring of 2015 classes were held on Saturdays from 9am-4pm. The cost of the class includes the quadcopter, software, and radio controller.