(USA TODAY) - In March, 47-year-old Stephen Myers ditched the information technology company that he built from the ground-up and went back to school.
His choice of study? Drone technology. He's now earning a specialized degree from the Unmanned Vehicle University in Arizona. Myers is taking an online course on how to control a drone's sensors and electronics, and he hopes to build a new commercial drone business.
"I think that something a lot of people don't understand is that when people think of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), they think of drones spying on them," said Myers, who lives in Naples, FL. "What they don't realize or what they don't understand are all the other applications."
Drones are already being tested by companies like Amazon, who hope to use them to deliver packages, and Dominos in the United Kingdom even wants to deliver pizza. "There is almost no industry that you can not think of that can benefit from UAVs," said Myers.
The Federal Aviation Administration just this week named six teams across the nation that will host the development and testing of drones to fly safely in the same skies as commercial airliners.
The announcement represents a major milestone toward the goal of sharing the skies by the end of 2015, in what is projected to become an industry worth billions of dollars. But technical hurdles and privacy concerns remain in a regulatory program that's already a year behind schedule.
Myers launched his previous IT career two decades ago during a time when computers were revolutionizing the world. Now, he's getting ready for a new digital revolution.
When Myers turns on his computer every Saturday afternoon he tunes into an online webinar course taught by a former Airforce technical director, and embarks on a simulated real world drone mission.
During his mission he applies math a physics to understand how to capture images on the ground while controlling the vehicle's center of gravity, signal to noise ratio and what to do if an engine fails.
"It is very technical but very technical in a sense that it is applied math and physics that you take to apply to real world missions," said Myers.
But the new field of study brings a new field of controversy. Digital watchdog groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center warn that because the Federal Aviation Administration has still not outlined any specific privacy standards, the drone industry could lead to "Big Brother" in the sky.
"For every drone in the air we're adding at least one more camera," said Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC's Domestic Surveillance Project. "It's going to be a continuing issue, because the industry is growing, it's going to continue to grow."
In March, Stepanovich testified in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee to guide them on what she thinks are necessary privacy considerations that the FAA should include in their final plan in 2015. She says that the FAA needs to make databases that keep track of all unmanned vehicle pilots, and have restrictions on how drones can retain and share information, before the federal agency finalizes its policy.
By 2015, thousands of drones are expected to be flying above America, once the Federal Aviation Administration drafts new guidelines. Teal Group, a defense and aerospace forecasting company, predicts that drones will become a billion dollar industry.
Getting a Drone Degree
So in order to keep up with this growing industry, universities around the country are starting drone degree programs. The University of North Dakota, Kansas State University Salina and Embry Riddle Aeronautical University are just a few among the growing list that offer drone degree programs.
Dr. Jerry Lemieux, a former military fighter pilot and Delta Airlines pilot, is the founder of the Unmanned Vehicle University in Phoenix. The university offers degrees to --- students each year. Students can get certified to pilot a drone, learn to become a professional aerial photographer, or get a masters or Ph.D in UAV systems engineering.
"Thousands and thousands of small UAVs are gonna be in the sky because everyone wants to do this as a business or even help their existing business," said Lemieux. "They may want to use these vehicles as tools to help their business or they may want to start their own business to provide a service."
Lemieux's university is taught completely online, and has graduated about 500 students from around the world who have gone on to use drones to take pictures of endangered Rhinoceroses in Africa, to conduct search and rescue missions during wildfire disasters and even to survey agriculture and farm land from the sky.
But Lemieux's students are not just going off to start businesses of their own, they are paving the way for an industry the 70,000 new U.S. jobs that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a non-profit UAV research group predicts will be made within the first three years, and 20,000 more by 2025.
Farmers, wildlife service members, photographers and filmmakers are among the professionals who Lemieux says have expressed interest in using drones to help their business.
"All experts and analysts they agree that the U.S. will have the regulations," said Baptiste Tripard, the North American distributor for a Swiss commercial drone company that opened a U.S. bureau last year to get their business ready in a country where Tripard and his company believes has the potential to become the largest consumer of drones.
"They will find the balance between safety, privacy and economic growth...they will be one of the biggest markets in the world, maybe the biggest."
Once testing begins at one of the six locations Tripard will fly his company's aerial mapping drone ebee over one of the selected states' skies.
But Stepanovich warns there are still issues that need to be addressed.
"Where you're collecting information on individuals, that's where there's a risk . . . we're putting a lot of surveillance equipment in the air," she said.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has asked the FAA to have better privacy protections in place before Amazon starts delivering packages via drones.
"Before drones start delivering packages, we need the FAA to deliver privacy protections for the American public. Convenience should never trump Constitutional protections," Markey said in a statement. "Before our skies teem with commercial drones, clear rules must be set that protect the privacy and safety of the public."