EDITORIAL: UNLV minor creates a drone home

Rarely does a new college minor have such potential for a major economic impact. But UNLV’s decision to introduce an undergraduate engineering minor in unmanned autonomous systems — drones to layfolk — already has helped attract the booming industry to Nevada. And in the near future, the payoffs could include business startups, thousands of high-paying jobs, and the research and private-sector support necessary to help lift the university to Tier 1 status.

Nevada’s higher education system was ahead of the curve in planning the program — UNLV’s minor will launch in the fall, while the University of Nevada, Reno started its drone minor in January — which helped the state become just one of six to win Federal Aviation Administration approval for commercial drone testing. Gov. Brian Sandoval announced last week that Nevada already has landed its first contract with a drone company, and that the state is talking to 15 to 20 other companies interesting in testing or manufacturing unmanned aerial vehicles here.

Drones already do big business. But the $11 billion-per-year industry is projected to grow to $100 billion per year within a decade. Nevada’s slice of that pie is expected to reach 15,000 jobs by then. That’s a lot of opportunity for engineers interested in designing the crafts and their operating and communication systems, as well as the ground-based pilots who’ll fly the drones.

As reported Tuesday by the Review-Journal’s Kristy Totten, the core classes of UNLV’s program were developed by pilots and industry experts. The minor’s electives already exist within engineering and computer science majors.

The opportunities for drone studies are as limitless as the technology’s potential uses. Far from being high-tech toys used exclusively for cool aerial photography, drones already have proved to be a cheaper, faster way to allow businesses and government agencies to monitor things and places where it’s expensive, impractical or unsafe to send a person. UAVs could greatly assist ranchers, miners, police, journalists and social workers, just to name a few fields. One day, they could handle routine deliveries of small items. But to do that, drone companies must create safe, efficient, durable, reliable craft that transmit images securely. And they must know how to operate UAVs lawfully and ethically. That takes study and investment.

“We don’t just want to train employees,” said Rama Venkat, dean of UNLV’s College of Engineering. “We want to create employers.”

Imagine a new multibillion-dollar industry taking root in Nevada and partnering with higher education to grow together. UNLV did. Smart move.