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Federal regulators are still working on new rules for the safe use of drones over American soil — but customers haven't been waiting around.
Unmanned aerial vehicles were once again a hot gift this holiday season. More than a million machines have been sold in recent years, and new potential uses are dreamed up seemingly by the day. But hey, hold on a second: do these buyers even know how to fly?
That's why both the Federal Aviation Administration and nation's leading flight schools are working to close the gap between enthusiasm and expertise, preparing people to fly in the skies of tomorrow.
"It's a lot like riding a bike, it's not hard but you crash a lot when you are learning."
It means a generation shift for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, one of the nation's largest schools of aviation. The school has taught traditional piloting since 1926. Now, in just three years, enrollment in its unmanned aviation degree has grown from 11 students — to more than 200.
Embry-Riddle is one of about 100 colleges and universities that have launched programs for people hoping to operate these machines, amid estimates of tens of thousands of new drone-flying jobs in the next decade, Some schools report year-over-year enrollment growth of more than 1,000 percent.
"It seems to be the wave of the future," said Alexa Roman, a junior who is studying drone piloting at the University of North Dakota.
"The benefits this industry will provide, I think, are just going to be exponential," added Andrew Regenhard, Alexa's classmate and co-pilot in the simulator, a machine that gives students a taste of remote controlled flight before actually taking the levers themselves.
"I would say the biggest challenge is the positional awareness of the aircraft," said John Robbins, an assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle.
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If you haven't heard the buzz of a drone in your neighborhood yet, it may be only a matter of days. But the FAA has serious concerns about the boom in drone pilots, most of them untrained backyard flyers, not degree holding would-be professionals.
"It's a lot like riding a bike, it's not hard but you crash a lot when you are learning," Rob Sumner of Hobby Works, a popular trade shop and website based out of Maryland.
Since June 1st, traditional pilots have reported 25 near collisions with unmanned aerial vehicles, including three very close calls in a 4-day period at New York's busy John F. Kennedy Airport. If an out-of-control drone were to hit a cockpit windshield or get sucked into engine, it could bring down a plane.
"It seems to be the wave of the future"
In response, the FAA, in partnership with several unmanned aircraft vehicle organizations, kicked off a safety campaign on Monday, urging new drone pilots to learn the existing rules of the air.
The short video, dubbed "Know before you fly," tells people to keep their machines below 400 feet, within their line of physical site, and no where near an airport of any kind. It also suggests that everyone take lessons.
"The thing that we have to avoid is any opportunity for aircraft to come into contact with one another," Michael Huerta, the head of the FAA, told NBC News, "because that is an extremely dangerous situation for everyone involved."
Any one who violates these current FAA rules could face thousands of dollars in fines, or even jail.