An earthquake has hit the southern coast of Majorca in the Mediterranean, causing a tsunami. Survivors are scattered around the Bay of Palma, setting signal fires.
Drone teams have been tasked with searching the northwest coast for an unknown number of survivors. When spotted, they are to notify search-and-rescue teams of locations and numbers of people. They’ve each been given a two- to three-kilometer-wide corridor to search. It’ll take an hour, cruising at about 2,000 feet.
“Let’s fly,” their leader says.
Air traffic control clears Collin Schmitt and Tyler Dears for takeoff. They avoid a thunderstorm and head for their grid, high above the bay.
As they come across the water, Dears spots a group standing around a fire on the roof of a yellow three-story building.
“Oh yeah, we got people on a rooftop!”
Schmitt calls in the coordinates.
These are students of one of Arizona State University’s two newest degrees in action. Both new programs — drone pilots and fashion — are pushing their first grads out into the world this month.
They are part of a class of about 15,100 Sun Devils receiving their degree May 7 (about 10,400 undergraduate, 4,700 graduate). Of that total, about 8,400 are Arizona residents, nearly 3,000 are online students and more than 700 are student veterans.
A cohort of 10 is graduating from the drone program. The degree is officially called the Bachelor of Science in aeronautical management technology (unmanned aerial systems). The Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts is decreeing two grads with Bachelor of Arts in fashion degrees in a program directed by Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Art Museum.
A clear flight plan
Schmitt, a current enlistee in the Air National Guard, wants to fly for the Air Force, either remotely piloting or manning an aircraft.
“I would like to push my career to new heights — literally — and I see this degree really helping me accomplish that,” Schmitt said. “Unmanned aerial systems is a newer field, and I see a lot of potential and growth in that area in the near future. I wanted to pursue a degree program that was new and focused on a whole other side of aviation.”
Like Schmitt, the newly minted drone pilots will head into the military or into the burgeoning field of civilian applications. The latter encompasses inspections of bridges, power lines, canals, fence lines and other infrastructure. Hollywood uses drone pilots heavily. Aerial photography for real estate is in demand. NASA uses drones for research. Law enforcement use is on the rise, both for search-and-rescue and pursuit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses drones to monitor wildlife.
“In the current market you’re only limited by your imagination,” instructor Don Wood said.
An industrial advisory board visits the program once a year, pointing out what industry is looking for.
“The students graduate with usable knowledge,” Wood said. “We work with industry to advise on the program and keep it relevant.”
Opportunities are wide open in the drone world. Overhead is low, too: operating costs are cheap and maintenance minor.
“The industry is so new it’s not dominated by big players yet,” Wood said. “If you have an entrepreneurial mindset and a go-getter attitude, it’s a great time to get into the business.”
They all know how to pilot both fixed-wing and quadcopter drones. (“That’s extremely common in the industry,” Wood said.) They start out on simulators, then move outside. Wood tells students to treat it like it’s a plane. “Fly first,” he says.
Whether it’s with frills or thrills, on Graduation Day all the newest Devils grads will soar.
Graduate Commencement begins at 9 a.m. Monday, May 7, at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe. Undergraduate Commencement is at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 7, at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix. Neither event is ticketed.
Find a complete list of individual college and special-interest convocations, details on the clear-bag policy, ticketing and RSVP requirements, photo information and more at the official ASU graduation page.
Top photo: Drone student pilot Collin Schmitt (right) and student navigator Tyler Dears work a simulated drone flight with a mission to locate survivors of an earthquake-caused tsunami off the southern coast of Majorca, at the Polytechnic campus' Simulation Building on April 10. The students are part of the first cohort of 10 graduates in aeronautical management technology with an emphasis in unmanned aerial systems. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now