At a remote-controlled model airplane field in Sarasota, Fla., Justin Woody was struggling to operate a mini-copter.
It was not a toy but an unmanned air vehicle, a drone, and Woody was getting hands-on training on how to fly a variety of them at a three-day session offered by the new Unmanned Vehicles University.
Woody is one of the current crop of students at Unmanned Vehicles University, the only institution in the United States to offer post-graduate engineering degrees, both masters and doctorate, in unmanned aerial vehicle systems. The program, which is the first of its kind, is the brain-child of retired U.S. Air Force colonel and F-4 pilot Jerry LeMieux.
"We look at the jobs first and then we designed the courses and curriculums around getting a job," LeMieux told "Nightline."
For $1,600 per quarter, students are trained in robotics, drone design, sensors and flight tests, and communications. Coursework is mostly taught through web seminars covering topics from drone technology to program management and mission planning. Intensive weekend seminars are also held around the country. For those like Woody who want to learn to fly unmanned vehicles, the university offers three-day hands-on courses, where the students take the controls, seeing what the drones see through special goggles.
"Having the goggles on and feeling like you are in there is challenging but you get used to it," Woody said.
Woody tried his hand at operating a drone similar to a helicopter. It can hover and it has a camera mounted underneath for scanning terrain.
"We've had this long time when we've had military systems out there, and we're just now entering this emerging market when commercial UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] are being manufactured," LeMieux said.
Drones captured the American imagination in the last decade as unmanned U.S. military reconnaissance planes that could fly high over war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping the pilots far from harm. First used as just eyes in the sky, the military quickly expanded the drones' missions to include launching deadly attacks without putting a pilot's life at risk.
As technology improved and the costs for drones shrank, the demand for them has exploded. Armed with cameras and other sensors, but not weapons, law enforcement, border police and other agencies are using them for tracking criminals. While that raises questions about privacy, security and safety, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates some 10,000 commercial drones will be in the skies within the next five years. For now, however, the commercial use of drones remains limited in the U.S.
"Think of hundreds of commercial uses of these vehicles, such as agriculture," said LeMieux, listing news media, sporting events, and the Motion Picture Association of America as potential big players in the nascent commercial drones market.
"One of the companies that we're teamed with, that donates a UAV to each of our students, just sold 2,600 vehicles to a Middle East country, and they're going to use them for surveillance," LeMieux said.
It is the ability to stay aloft and look down on the world below, often while snapping pictures and recording video, that has stirred the greatest concerns about privacy.