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Blue Skies Ahead: Welcome to the World of Unmanned Aircraft (aka Drones)

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Drones are a hot topic in tech. Are they also a hot career path for those looking for a truly 21st century gig? 

By Terri Griffith (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

Amazon’s Prime Air drones won’t be delivering our packages this year, but the frameworks to allow safe and sane unmanned flights are in progress. Now is the time to be making career plans. One of the first professional associations, The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says we can expect unmanned aircraft operations to trigger 100,000 new U.S. jobs and more than $82 billion in economic outcomes in the first decade.

Diane Simard, Sr. Vice President/Director, at Bye Aerospace, an early mover in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, the formal name for drones) industry, offered that, “[The UAS field] is not pegged to be a male-dominated industry. There is a wide open opportunity for women.” She also noted that she’s been pleased to see how many women she’s able to interact with — and that it’s an area with untapped potential, “poised for phenomenal growth.”

UAS careers will be both similar and different to those in related fields. Engineering, supply-chain, and customer service expertise will easily transfer from traditional fields to UAS.

There are however, additional opportunities around how jobs are designed given the early stages of the industry. Many of the roles are by definition remote. Pilots, for example, control their UAS from afar. I asked Simard what she thought about the idea that this would allow people to be pilots without leaving home. She gave us all something to work on, “the challenge is to weave that into the dialog now.” With this, or any new industry, we have a window of opportunity to make this work the best it can be.

While commercial operations of UAS are banned in the U.S. at the moment, government and experimental uses are possible now. Commercial use will follow as soon as aviation authorities figure out how to integrate UAS safely into the sky. The U.S. has test sites in place working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom already have rules in place. You can track developments on the FAA’s site and keep in mind that UAS range from planes, to helicopters, to airships (blimps) and traditional and electric propulsion.

To learn more about current job opportunities, I talked with Tim Kirkwood, an aviation-industry job expert with Women in Corporate Aviation and AviaNation.com. He found 23 job postings going back to 2007. Current opportunities suggest the growth to follow with several organizations looking for instructors or people who can help with the testing necessary to get us to broader commercial uses. Tim Kirkwood noted, “It’s looking to be a whole new branch of aviation.”

Degree programs are in place at The University of North Dakota, Kansas State University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and more to come. Law firms are setting up speciality practice areas. And, yes, Amazon Prime Air is testing quadcopters for home deliveries, and is hiring!

Want to learn more about frontiers in aviation and aerospace? Hear Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, speak at our upcoming conference.

About the blogger: Terri Griffith is chair of the Management Department at Santa Clara University and the author of the award-winning book, The Plugged-in Manager: Get In Tune With Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive. Connect with her on Facebook or @TerriGriffith.

Image credit: Don McCullough via Flickr