Drone minor a major step

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is getting better and better about partnering with private industry to improve students’ employment prospects. The latest example of the school’s responsiveness is its consideration of a minor in drone technology.

As reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Yesenia Amaro on Sunday, the program would focus on the science behind unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as drone usage, and would complement degrees in fields such as mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineering. The university is gathering information on industry needs, which would guide the program’s structure.

Ms. Amaro reported that in the first quarter of 2013, there were 13,500 aerospace and defense jobs held statewide, at an average annual salary of $80,000. Drone operators certainly helped bolster those employment figures — Creech Air Force Base alone has 250 drone pilots and crew members, working in shifts 24 hours a day — and the field is sure to expand as more ways to use drones are explored. The commercial application of drones has huge economic possibilities, with a recent Medill News Service report pegging the current national annual impact at $14 billion. That figure has the potential to rise to more than $80 billion by 2025, depending on how the Federal Aviation Administration opts to regulate the integration of commercial drones into urban airspace — a decision expected to come in 2015. About 10,000 new drones will be in the air within a few years after the commercial ban is lifted, according to agency projections.

UNLV is ideally situated to offer drone studies, from a military standpoint and for a variety of other reasons outlined by Ms. Amaro’s report. The university should be commended for examining the need for such a program. Higher education needs more programs that give students practical knowledge in growing high-tech industries that pay well — particularly those that are right here in Nevada. A college education isn’t getting any cheaper, and especially in this slowly recovering economy, students can’t afford to put themselves tens of thousands of dollars in debt for degrees that offer limited job prospects.

However, if the university moves forward with the program, school officials should keep in mind the legitimate privacy concerns that stem from increasing drone usage. To that end, the curriculum should include a course that deals with civil liberties and the legal ramifications of expanded drone use. Those who might gain employment designing or piloting drones should be fully aware of potential legal abuses — already, there are far too many to count. What limits should be put on drone surveillance by police? When are warrants or legal permission for flights required? How low can drones fly over private property? Perhaps such a course could be offered through the Boyd School of Law.

Drone technology is cutting-edge. UNLV shouldn’t forget that the required classwork should hit on all the potential that drones possess — positive and negative.