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Tuesday
Apr232013

Drone School Teaches Students How to Fly, Build Unmanned Vehicles

Ines Novacic/ABC News(SARASOTA, Fla.) -- At a remote-controlled model airplane field in Sarasota, Fla., Justin Woody was struggling to operate a mini-copter.

It was not a toy but an unmanned air vehicle, a drone, and Woody was getting hands-on training on how to fly a variety of them at a three-day session offered by the new Unmanned Vehicles University.

Woody is one of the current crop of students at Unmanned Vehicles University, the only institution in the United States to offer post-graduate engineering degrees, both masters and doctorate, in unmanned aerial vehicle systems. The program, which is the first of its kind, is the brain-child of retired U.S. Air Force colonel and F-4 pilot Jerry LeMieux.

"We look at the jobs first and then we designed the courses and curriculums around getting a job," LeMieux told ABC's Nightline.

For $1,600 per quarter, students are trained in robotics, drone design, sensors and flight tests, and communications. Coursework is mostly taught through Web seminars covering topics from drone technology to program management and mission planning. Intensive weekend seminars are also held around the country. For those like Woody who want to learn to fly unmanned vehicles, the university offers three-day hands-on courses, where the students take the controls, seeing what the drones see through special goggles.

Woody tried his hand at operating a drone similar to a helicopter. It can hover and it has a camera mounted underneath for scanning terrain.

"We've had this long time when we've had military systems out there, and we're just now entering this emerging market when commercial UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] are being manufactured," LeMieux said.

Drones captured the American imagination in the last decade as unmanned U.S. military reconnaissance planes that could fly high over war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping the pilots far from harm. First used as just eyes in the sky, the military quickly expanded the drones' missions to include launching deadly attacks without putting a pilot's life at risk.

As technology improved and the costs for drones shrank, the demand for them has exploded. Armed with cameras and other sensors, but not weapons, law enforcement, border police and other agencies are using them for tracking criminals. While that raises questions about privacy, security and safety, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates some 10,000 commercial drones will be in the skies within the next five years. For now, however, the commercial use of drones remains limited in the U.S.

"Think of hundreds of commercial uses of these vehicles, such as agriculture," said LeMieux, listing news media, sporting events, and the Motion Picture Association of America as potential big players in the nascent commercial drones market.

"One of the companies that we're teamed with, that donates a UAV to each of our students, just sold 2,600 vehicles to a Middle East country, and they're going to use them for surveillance," LeMieux said.

It is the ability to stay aloft and look down on the world below, often while snapping pictures and recording video, that has stirred the greatest concerns about privacy.

"Our biggest concern is that drones not become used for pervasive mass, routine surveillance of American life," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's one thing to use a drone in a particular law enforcement situation where there's a particular suspect, or if the police have a warrant, or if there's an emergency. But what we don't want to see is drones...[hovering] over our neighborhoods 24/7, keeping track of everywhere that we drive or walk and the technology is there to do that. But you know, in our civilization, the government doesn't look over your shoulder."

Despite the benefits of using drones, several states are seeking to limit their use, even for law enforcement.

A recent incident at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, when the pilot of a commercial aircraft coming in for a landing reported seeing an alleged small recreational drone near his flight path, also underscored the need for safety measures.

As more and more drones take to our skies, Congress has ordered the FAA to establish a set of rules to integrate drones into the nation's airspace by 2015.

Seated beside the landing strip at Sarasota's model airplane field, LeMieux commented that, in the next few years, he expects to see "hundreds of thousands of vehicles" flying and being manufactured every year.

"When you talk about these low-altitude, small vehicles, which is 80 percent of what I think they will be, I don't see that as an issue," LeMieux said. "We're formulating rules on this right now, it's all kind of up in the air."

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio