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A woman passes the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering at UNLV on Thursday, Feb. 02, 2017. Photo by Photoprises LLC.

Federal aviation officials have predicted that the fleet of commercial drones in the U.S. could quadruple in size from 2017 levels by 2022, driven by their growing use in real estate and aerial photography, surveying, agriculture inspection and many other fields.

It’s one of the big reasons UNLV is introducing a certificate program this winter that, over two weekends, will not only prepare students for a written test to earn a drone pilot’s license but also offer an internationally recognized training program to set them apart in the field. The program emerges in a state that’s one of seven designated by the Federal Aviation Administration as a drone testing site, as Nevada puts more focus on developing an autonomous technology industry and as drones becomes more ubiquitous.

“There’s a lot more talk about it, it’s in the news a lot more, so we get a lot more interest because of that,” said Heidi Erpelding-Welch, a program developer in UNLV’s Continuing Education department. “It’s so prevalent at this point. It’s something we saw as an additional need for workforce development.”

Drone coursework is gaining popularity in Nevada colleges, too. The College of Southern Nevada (CSN) last year announced plans for a two-year degree program in Unmanned Aviation System Technology.

Professor Art Eggers said the program has been approved by CSN but is awaiting a sign-off from a regional accrediting commission. If all goes as planned, the program will launch in the fall of 2019.

Eggers said the curriculum — developed with advice from leaders in the industry — will go beyond flight training and will encompass tenets of responsible drone ownership as well as the technology behind drones, including programming courses.

UNLV used to offer drone pilot certification within its engineering program on a schedule that fit for more traditional undergraduate students. It phased out the program in 2016 to revamp it, ensuring it better fit the schedules of people who have full-time jobs already, but want to add drone flying to their skill set.

“One of the biggest fallacies is the idea of unfilled jobs where all you do is act as a drone pilot, and that’s not really the case,” said Jonathan Daniels, CEO of Praxis Aerospace Concepts International, Inc., which will host and provide the instructor and equipment for the program. This is a tool that will get you better at doing your job.”

The program has room for 20 students and costs $1,899. It runs on a Friday night, all day Saturday and all day Sunday for two weekends in a row.

Students will learn the different applications of drones, the ins and outs of the regulatory system, how to read aeronautical charts, and how to operate a drone safely.  For 10 hours, they’ll either operate a simulator or fly a real drone.

The class prepares students for the “Part 107” test they must take to earn a “remote pilot certificate,” which allows them to fly a small drone during daylight hours legally under Federal Aviation Administration rules. The number of people with such a certificate has reached more than 100,000 in the two years since FAA eased rules for pilots, removing a requirement that people operating such drones have a plane pilot’s certification.

What makes UNLV’s program different from other classes on drones is that it’s one of the first to adhere to Trusted Operator Program certification through the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. Daniels likens it to buying organic produce — there’s a difference between someone slapping the “organic” label on an apple, and the apple being the product of a rigorous set of organic farming standards.

“That provides a professional framework based on industry standards and best practices and regulation, to really target an employable remote pilot,” he said.

The certificate program is one of about 20 offered by the university, and is an example of Nevada colleges seeking to prepare students for careers outside the traditional 2- or 4-year degree programs. Students can become a certified medical assistant, personal trainer or paralegal through UNLV.

They can also earn a certificate in human resources or business administration — programs aimed at helping people get a promotion or allowing those who have business experience but lack formal higher education to get a credential and structured training under their belt.

Retraining workers for new fields is also important for those who change careers by choice, through layoffs or if their job becomes obsolete by automation, for example.

“You look at the generations that are coming up and the number of career changes that they’re making,” Erpelding-Welch said. “To come back and get a full bachelor’s degree — people can’t commit that amount of time. They’re already working, they have families, so that’s where we come into play, where they can build add-on skills.”

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