DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Secured inside a room you need a U.S. passport to enter is a modern arcade of war machines.
It looks like a gamer’s paradise: A comfortable tan leather captain’s chair sits behind four computer monitors, an airplane joystick with a red “fire” button, a keyboard and throttle control. The games here have great implications. Across the world, a $20 million Gray Eagle drone armed with four Hellfire missiles, ready to make a sortie into hostile territory is taking commands from a workstation like this one. A graduate from this room on the campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach could be in that other room in as little as six months with a master’s degree in drone warfare, his hand on the joystick, making $150,000 a year.
Welcome to the new basic training, where the skills to fight the War of Tomorrow are taught in private classrooms today. Embry-Riddle this fall became the first in the country to offer post graduate education in this field.
“We’re trying to prepare our students so they’re ready to operate at the highest levels,” said Dan Macchiarella, department chair of aeronautical sciences at Embry-Riddle.
But as with so many things that begin with a military purpose, these unmanned vehicles are coming in all shapes and sizes — from full-sized planes to mini helicopters less than 2 feet across — to play a role in the civilian world.
They are used by law enforcement to patrol the borders, to nab shark-fin poachers off the Galapagos Islands, to hover above the trees and count populations of endangered birds. The University of Florida built its own drone to monitor wildlife.
There are storm-chasing drones. Fire-fighting drones. Drones to report real-time traffic. Congress has ordered the FAA to issue new regulations for this impending civilian army of unmanned vehicles.
Look up in the sky: The drones are coming.
Charles Reinholtz, left, watches as one of his students, Will Shaler, works on an Unmaned Aircraft System in the robotics lab at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., on July 1, 2013. As "drones" have become common vernacular in the U.S. wars overseas, Emby_Riddle is offering a masters degree in drone warfare. (AP PHOTO/PALM BEACH POST, Laura McDermott ) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; NO SALES×
Josh Olds, left, and John Bounds demonstrate an Unmaned Aircraft System they control by writing script in a computer at Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Fla., on July 1, 2013. As "drones" have become common vernacular in the U.S. wars overseas, Embry-Riddle offers a masters degree in drone warfare. (AP Photo/Palm Beach Post, Laura McDermott) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; NO SALES×
From left to right, senior Will Shaler and graduate students Gene Gambel and Hitesh Patel discuss the robot boat that will serve as a platform for an Unmaned Aircraft System, to land on campus at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., on July 1, 2013. The students in the program are studying to build, repair and fly the war planes of the future. (AP Photo/Palm Beach Post, Laura McDermott) MAGS OUT; TV OUT; NO SALES×