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Degree in drones coming to area colleges

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Detroit Lakes News Online reports that a local college is first in the nation to offer a one-year Imagery Analysis certificate or a two-year associate's degree in Geospatial Intelligence Analysis.

In other words, drones.

Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls offers the programs to prepare students for military or civilian careers.

For the last ten years, the U.S. military has increasingly relied on unmanned aircraft to provide intelligence for some of its most dangerous missions. Video from drones is also being considered for civilian purposes like collecting video for agriculture or emergency management.

Less than half the 52 students who started the program last spring came back for more this fall. Sterling Williams, a former analyst for the U.S. Army, helped design the challenging curriculum, in which students learn complex geospatial computer programs that require math skills. They also learn to be good writers and study privacy laws.

Williams said graduates of the two-year program will have skills that compare to a veteran military analyst. And many of them come unusually prepared.

"A lot of students that excel the most, they game a lot," Williams said. "They play a lot of video games. It's easier for them to learn to see the ground. It's easier for them to learn to see things that are out of place in an image because that's why they've been trained to do by playing video games."

Although their course of study is relatively new, the students could be helped by the federal government, which is developing a process to certify imagery analysts.

USA Today reported last week that a growing number of colleges are offering courses related to unmanned aircraft.

While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently allows some colleges, law-enforcement agencies and hobbyists to fly unmanned aircrafts with some restrictions, they have banned the commercial use of drones except for one Arctic commercial operator.

The University of North Dakota is teaching students how to fly drones, according to the Associated Press. Its program started with five students in 2009, and had 120 last year.

An industry commissioned study last spring predicted more than 70,000 jobs would develop in the first three years after Congress and the F.A.A. open the skies to unmanned aircraft. The same study projects an average salary range for a drone pilot between $85,000 and $115,000.

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