Microdrone

Now hiring: Drone jockeys

January 11, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

Unmanned drones are bound for civilian skies -- leading to a surge in demand for experienced pilots.

By Clay Dillow, contributor

drone-jockeysFORTUNE -- Charles Taylor did not set out to become a drone pilot. An avid fan of remote-controlled planes, Taylor didn't know much about unmanned aircraft outside the occasional news of military Predator strikes. But in August 2012 the University of North Dakota grad was among the first to receive a bachelor's degree tailored to unmanned-aircraft operations.

Civilian airspace will be open to unmanned traffic in 2015, creating demand for pilots -- part aeronautical engineer, part physicist, part software coder. Analysts predict global spending on drones will double over the next decade, to $11.4 billion. Potential markets range from law enforcement to wildlife management and oil and gas discovery.

MORE: What it's really like to fly a drone

Academia and business are co-creating programs to churn out qualified graduates. The University of North Dakota was the first to offer a specific degree program in 2009. It has roughly 120 majors today. Many are drawn by the prospect of high pay: Salaries average $100,000. And aerospace giants General Dynamics (GD), Northrop Grumman (NOC), Boeing (BA), and Lockheed Martin (LMT) are hoping to replace their retiring rank and file with drone-trained grads.

Taylor and his peers are among the first products of this effort. Just two weeks after circulating his résumé, the 23-year-old had something many in this economy dream of: prospects for a lucrative career.

This story is from the January 14, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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