Next year around this time, we may be talking about an explosion of interest by employers for recent college grads who know how to operate drones. That’s right – the same way that we currently hear about the IT skills gap in hot areas such as mobile and the cloud and big data – we may be hearing about the need for IT workers with skills and experience related to drone technology.
One key factor is the relentless growth of new business opportunities for drones. It is almost a certainty that the ability to build, pilot and monitor these drones is going to be hugely important once commercial drones get the go-ahead from the FAA. Sure, there are the high-profile business cases – such as the Amazon retail delivery drones or theDomino’s pizza delivery drones – but there are also everyday use cases that extend from filmmaking and aerial photography to fields such as real estate, farming and pipeline maintenance. Journalists want to work with them. As do meteorologists. And, yes, the Pentagon is definitely interested in the future of drones, too.
According to a 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, FAA approval of commercial drones could lead to the creation of 70,000 new U.S. jobs within the next three years, and 100,000 new U.S. jobs by the year 2025. Many of these early jobs, most likely, will be involved in integrating commercial drones into commercial airspace. At any time, there are thousands of commercial aircraft airborne in U.S. airspace, and it’s possible that there will be just as many drones within a few short years. Some predict drones to become an $80 billion business opportunity by 2025.
Already, we’re starting to see the first testing of commercial drones at FAA test sites in places such as New York, North Dakota, Alaska, Nevada, Texas and Virginia. The goal of these new FAA sites is to test out drones in a variety of climates, environments and use cases. The drones in New York, for example, are meant to test out ways to integrate commercial drones into congested Northeastern air space. (So that we avoid incidents like this) And the drones in North Dakota are going to be used to test out approaches related to farming management and agriculture research.
To keep up with this projected demand for drone skills, there is now a growing number of official programs and academic opportunities for drone operators. Once companies start hiring, they’re probably going to pass on recent engineering grads with a theoretical knowledge of machine propulsion or navigation systems, in favor of candidates with hands-on experience who know how to get a drone airborne from a dead start, and maneuver it around for photos. When Amazon starts hiring drone operators, for example, it probably won’t want to build a drone-training program from scratch.
Which might explain why we’re starting to see some very innovative types of academic programs for the drone technology experts of tomorrow. It’s the basic law of supply and demand at work. The Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix, for example, can set you up with a variety of career options — piloting a drone, becoming an aerial drone photographer, or starting a career as a UAV systems engineer. The Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers a bachelor’s degree in Unmanned Aircraft Systems Science. The University of North Dakota offers a four-year program for future Unmanned Aerial Vehicles pilots, while Kansas State offers an undergraduate degree in Unmanned Aircraft Studies.
What’s interesting is how all this might change the employment landscape for technology. Most of the big technology employment hubs — places such as New York and Boston — thrive on urban density. Entrepreneurs like to cluster together. With drone technology, it’s the opposite. Most of the big drone-testing sites are in out-of-the-way locations: North Dakota not New York. Even the test site in New York state is located far from Manhattan or Brooklyn, meaning that Brooklyn hipsters are about to be replaced by upstate rural residents as the arbiters of tech cool.
Of course, all this sounds a bit fantastical. North Dakota hopes to eventually become the new Silicon Valley? Really? And there are obviously a lot of safety factors to keep in mind before commercial drones hit the mainstream. Yet, the next time you hear your neighbor talking about buying a Parrot Bebop quadcopter and Oculus Rift VR headset, don’t be so quick to dismiss him or her. Getting an early jump on these consumer drone technologies may be the secret to a six-figure job offer later, even if it means moving to a place like Kansas or North Dakota. The same way that tech companies now complain about a lack of talent in areas such as mobile or big data, they may be talking about a drone talent gap within a few years.
Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City. Prior to working for Bond Strategy, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."