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If you want to be a drone engineer, you better have experience -- and security clearance

By Ron Schneiderman, IEEE

General Atomics Avenger (formerly Predator C) unmanned combat air vehicle. [Image courtesy: General Atomics]



The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) market is already huge, and it's getting bigger -- fast.

The Teal Group estimates that production of combat, commercial, and consumer drones will triple over the next 10 years to U.S. $93 billion, with military UAV research spending adding another $30 billion over the decade. "The commercial market is still nascent," says Philip Finnegan, Teal's director of corporate affairs. "Even as the commercial market develops, it will not reach the size of the military market anytime soon." Still, MarketsandMarkets, another research firm, expects the commercial drone market to reach $1.27 billion by 2020, a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 109.31 percent between 2014 and 2020.

Impressive numbers, but they don't seem to be helping engineering students and recent graduates who are interested in a career in drone design and development.

Where the jobs are
The defense/aerospace UAV sector is hiring aggressively, but most job descriptions call for engineering "talent" with several years of experience and a load of skill sets -- and a security clearance, which means the job applicant must be a U.S. citizen.

Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services is looking for a principal/senior systems engineer for its UAV program with at least 10 years of experience, familiarity with UAV command and control systems, his or her own list of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) customer contacts, and a U.S. government-approved Secret-level security clearance. Raytheon also is in the market for senior systems engineers with at least six years of experience, and a U.S. military background in planning UAV missions and piloting UAVs.

Northrop Grumman's Aerospace Systems Sector says it needs "experienced" UAV engineers skilled in communications systems, radar systems, guidance/navigation/control, UAV control and mission management software, and cyber software. A recent list of the company's job openings for engineering graduates is much shorter, including a "new grad" software engineer, but still requires a master's degree in computer science, computer engineering, or information systems. Northrop also needed a "junior" EE with a bachelor's degree who can obtain and maintain a TS/SCI (Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information) security clearance.

Northrop Grumman Bat Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) caught in retrieval net. [Image courtesy: Northrop Grumman]



Google-owned Titan Aerospace is looking for an application software engineer with at least a master's degree in computer science (a Ph.D is preferred), and experience in building ground control stations for UAVs. Google also needs experienced software engineers for its Project Wing who already know how to design complete UAV software stacks. Most other drone designers and developers (DJI Technology, L-3 Communications, 3D Robotics, General Dynamics, Israel Aerospace Industries, Elbit Systems Ltd., AeroVironment, and Yuneec International, to name a few) have similar engineering staff requirements.

The commercial/consumer sectors
There are more jobs available to more junior, or less experienced engineers in the commercial and consumer markets, but even these sectors seem to be tight on job opportunities.

"I think the reason for that is so many companies are just starting," says Chad Kapper, president of Theiss UAV Solutions, LLC, a UAV solutions company based in Salem, OH, that was recently acquired and renamed by Lauren International. Theiss is looking for people with at least three years of experience to design and build autonomous drones, mainly for aerial imagery and data collection applications.

L-3 Communications' L-3 Unmanned Systems unit has put out a call for a software engineering intern to help design, code, and test custom software solutions (at $25.65 an hour); an engineering intern to work on guidance, navigation, and control systems; and an aerospace engineer intern to work on the design and help test small UAVs.

Textron Inc. Unmanned Systems is recruiting full-time EE interns for 2016 for its ground control technology and avionics design engineering teams. Specifically, the company is looking for undergraduates currently pursuing a Bachelor or Master of science degree in electrical engineering with a minimum 3.2 GPA and the ability to obtain a security clearance. General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (maker of the Predator drone) is looking for entry-level test and qualification engineers, and ground control systems integration/test engineers with a bachelor's (with two or more years of experience) or a master's degree in engineering or a related technical discipline.

Lockheed Martin's wish list recently included 21 "experienced professionals" in UAV engineering with a Secret or Top Secret clearance, and one opening for an entry-level engineer. "The mission needs drive our requirements for very experienced engineers who can take on the toughest challenges," says Jay McConville, director of business development for Lockheed Martin Unmanned Solutions. McConville also says Lockheed supports a robust engineering intern program, and he urges new engineering graduates to monitor Lockheed's careers website for new job opportunities: A recent Lockheed Martin jobs list included a requirement for two college students (tech interns), one of them requiring a Top Secret clearance.

The Insitu ScanEagle is an agile, virtually undetectable UAS that delivers superior live video feeds on land or at sea. It has a wingspan just over 10 ft and can cruise at 50 to 60 knots up to 20,000 ft. [Image courtesy: Insitu]





Insitu Mission Systems, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing Defense, Space & Security's Military Aircraft Division, is looking for bachelor's degree-level software engineers to work on sensing/mission systems at its San Mateo, CA, facility, but the job also requires up to two years of experience. "We have had good experience in hiring young engineers, whether they're finishing up undergrad or grad school," says Pravin Rajamoney, Insitu's electronic hardware engineering manager. Jim Miller, the company's senior software department manager, says, "Some of the key people in the software department started as interns and have continued to move up over time."

In April, Insitu acquired 2d3 Sensing, a wholly-owned subsidiary of UK-based OMG PLC specializing in developing motion imagery and media management with offices in Irvine and San Mateo, CA, and Oxford, England. Miller says, "We're just starting our first trial of one of our interns working with engineers from these offices, and I am certain our intern program will grow because of this acquisition." Also, in September, Insitu Pacific, an Australia-based subsidiary, said it would continue to sponsor the UAV Challenge, part of the company's STEM program, into 2016.

Shenzhen, China-based DJI Technology, the largest consumer drone maker with an estimated 70 percent global market share, has one of the UAV sector's longest recruitment lists. DJI, which recently agreed to acquire a minority stake in Sweden-based camera maker Hasselblad, says it plans to recruit dozens of engineers in Silicon Valley into 2016 for its new R&D center in Palo Alto.

DJI Technology is betting heavily on the UAV-imaging market.



Plenty of startups
Not surprisingly, drones have become a significant opportunity for entrepreneurs. Several of them have won financial support from large defense contractors, chip companies, and industrial conglomerates, particularly in the commercial and consumer market sectors. By June 2015, unmanned aerial system (UAS) startups had raised $172 million in venture financing, more than the previous three years combined, according to data from CB Insights.

Theiss UAV's Kapper says there are plenty of one-man startups at this point. He says the timing is right. "When you think about it, drones aren't just getting cameras in the air. This is the year that computers take flight. Sensors have been shrinking in size and weight exponentially over the past five years. Right now, we're all overwhelmed with the possibilities. I'm not sure what the percentage of jobs will be that are engineering related, but one thing is for sure: The need is growing."

General Atomics advanced UAS control cockpit for Predator-type drones. [Image courtesy: General Atomics.



Other startups that seem to be off and running include 3D Robotics, PrecisionHawk, Airware, Kespry, CyPhy Works, DroneDeploy, Airphrame, Sunlight Photonics, Vires Aeronautics, Skydio, Skycatch, SkySpecs, Skyfront, and SkyWorks Aerial Systems. PrecisionHawk is looking for people with knowledge of complete end-to-end flight systems, experience with Matlab/Simulink coders, and experience in robotics and/or embedded programming for unmanned vehicles. Founded in 2009, 3D Robotics has been aggressively competing with DJI in the consumer drone sector, snapping up much of DJI's U.S. tech talent, according to Fortune magazine.

CyPhy (pronounced sci-fi) Works, founded and led by iRobot co-founder Helen Greiner, is expanding its technical staff, but with experienced people. (The CyPhy recruitment page lists a "principal EE" with at least 20 years of experience, and a "senior EE" with 10-plus years of experience, among other positions.) Another startup, Kespry, launched in 2013 and based in Menlo Park, CA, has developed a drone system for aerial data collection, targeting the construction industry. San Francisco-based DroneDeploy, also founded in 2013, specializes in drone management systems. Most of these smaller companies are also seeking experienced engineering talent, but Henderson, NV-based SkyWorks evolved out of a program developed by students at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

As a sidenote, larger companies seeking to become players in the drone market are buying into the UAV sector. Qualcomm acquired KMel Robotics. Founded in 2011 by two University of Pennsylvania graduates, KMel develops advanced control technology for drones. Google acquired Titan Aerospace in 2014. In May, Intel invested $60 million in Shanghai-based Yuneec.

Back to school
Several schools have developed curriculum to help engineering students prepare for careers in drone development.

"Our program provides students with advanced degrees in UAS engineering," says Jamey D. Jacob, professor of aerospace engineering at Oklahoma State University's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. "Graduates have been in high demand, and we haven't had any trouble with students finding employment across a wide field of firms large and small with an emphasis on traditional UAS areas, including military."

Kansas State University-Salina has created a UAS option degree to focus on drone development with coursework focused on computer science, electronic, and mechanical engineering with unmanned systems. The program doesn't currently produce full-fledged UAS engineers. "We won't have graduates for two to three years," says Kurt Barnhart, associate dean of research and engagement and executive director of the Applied Aviation Research Center, which oversees the university's UAS program office. "Our current program graduates operators, analysts, and technicians, and they're being recruited by all industry sectors. We have 100 percent placement right out of school." Barnhart says that $60,000 to $80,000 starting salaries are not uncommon, and employers cover the cost of obtaining security clearances. K-State-Salina has also signed a research partnership with Raleigh, NC-based PrecisionHawk to help the company create apps and programs that turn aerial images of corn fields and other field crops into useful data.

The Ohio State University College of Engineering and Sinclair Community College formed a partnership in 2014 to help prepare students for careers in the UAV industry. As part of the program, Ohio State has created an interdisciplinary undergraduate major in data analytics and plans to expand the program, focusing on unmanned systems.

Other schools with technical programs offering online degrees in UAS development are Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the Unmanned Vehicle University, the University of Phoenix, and the University of Arizona. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also selected a University of Mississippi team as a Center of Excellence for Unmanned Systems. The university's research is expected to evolve over time, but initially will focus on detect and avoid, control and communications, and spectrum management technologies.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's AUVSI Foundation has also worked with several universities to develop educational programs in unmanned systems and robotics for high school and four-year college/university undergrad and graduate students. According to the foundation, participating students are frequently offered internships and employment opportunities while still in school.

Regulation of the industry has become a major issue in promoting its growth. According to the AUVSI, the United States leads the rest of the world in drone production, but other countries, led by Australia, France, Sweden, and Japan, have moved faster to approve their use in commercial applications. The FAA missed the September 30, 2015, deadline set by the U.S. Congress for full integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace, but as of this writing the FAA has signed off on more than 1,000 exceptions for the use of drones in commercial applications, mostly agricultural, construction, and film production. In October 2015, the FAA formed a task force made up of representatives of the UAS community to create a system of federal registration of certain types of drones.

"Right now," says Theiss UAV's Kapper, "the commercial UAV companies are navigating state legalities and the ambiguous FAA regulations; they're creating a lot of apprehension. Once that gets sorted out, this industry is going to skyrocket."

About the author
Ron Schneiderman is the author of "Modern Standardization -- Case Studies at the Crossroads of Technology, Economics, and Politics," published by John Wiley & Sons.

Published December 2015

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