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.
"Our biggest concern is that drones not become used for pervasive mass, routine surveillance of American life," said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's one thing to use a drone in a particular law enforcement situation where there's a particular suspect, or if the police have a warrant, or if there's an emergency. But what we don't want to see is drones ... [hovering] over our neighborhoods 24/7, keeping track of everywhere that we drive or walk and the technology is there to do that. But you know, in our civilization, the government doesn't look over your shoulder."
The Miami Dade Police Department is one of over a dozen law enforcement agencies that are incorporating drones into their operations. They have an aviation unit that operates under strict rules to address privacy concerns.
"We can't just sit and say we are going to fly this thing from the station and we are going to surveille the city," said Lt. Aviel Sanchez, who is head the aviation unit. "We can only fly at 300 feet of altitude and line of sight of the pilot. We cannot fly currently at night. We can't fly over populated areas or we can't fly near high rises."
The unit trains with two micro-air vehicles, or MAVs. The MAVs are designed to hover above an area and send back pictures to a nearby command post.
"It basically assists us in getting an aerial view," Sanchez said, "for the ground units, the commanders, the incident commanders, and first responders on the scene so that they can better prepare to approach a situation."
During one training session, the Miami police practiced a situation in which a suspect had escaped from custody and the MAV was used to help assess what was unfolding during the manhunt. Pilot Patrick van Gils, who has been with the MDPD for 14 years, guided the MAV into position over several buildings where radio reports said the suspect was heading.
Van Gils could see from the images sent back by the MAV that the suspect was running across a clearing and into a particular building. At the command post, images from the drone helped the incident commander guide the SWAT team into position. With the drone above and the SWAT team outside the door, the fake suspect was quickly apprehended.
"We are hoping to use this for tactical situations," Van Gils said, "where we have someone shooting at the police. We don't want to obviously put any police lives in danger."
Despite the benefits of using drones, Florida is one of several states seeking to limit their use, even for law enforcement.
A recent incident at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, when the pilot of a commercial aircraft coming in for a landing reported seeing an alleged small recreational drone near his flight path, also underscored the need for safety measures.
As more and more drones take to our skies, Congress has ordered the FAA to establish a set of rules to integrate drones into the nation's airspace by 2015.
Seated beside the landing strip at Sarasota's model airplane field, LeMieux commented that, in the next few years, he expects to see "hundreds of thousands of vehicles" flying and being manufactured every year.
"When you talk about these low-altitude, small vehicles, which is 80 percent of what I think they will be, I don't see that as an issue," LeMieux said. "We're formulating rules on this right now, it's all kind of up in the air."