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LeTourneau University in Longview launches drone bachelor's degree

Janet Ragland / LeTourneau University

LeTourneau University in Longview will launch a new undergraduate degree program in the fall training pilots for work in the unmanned aircraft industry.

The new program, the Bachelor of Science in Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, will enable pilots to fly, repair and program drones, according to Fred Ritchey, Dean of LeTourneau’s School of Aviation and Aeronautical Science. Ritchey estimates more than 100,000 new jobs will open up in this industry with wide ranging applications from border security to filmmaking.

“The industry is exploding. Candidly, as a leader in collegiate aviation education in Texas, we believe it’s important for us to offer a robust academic program in the unmanned aircraft arena,” Ritchey said.

The degree program has been in development for 18 months, according to Ritchey. The program will be led by LeTourneau alumnus Ruedi Schubarth who has worked for a defense contractor operating unmanned aircraft systems in the U.S. and abroad. Schubarth, who began working at LeTourneau nine months ago, found he’s had to be very flexible in developing the curriculum because Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for operating drones are in flux.

He aims to instill in students the same rigorous attention to detail as pilots of passenger aircraft.

“There needs to be the same level of professionalism, skill and attention given to pre-flight checks, checklists, and recording important information for every flight of an airplane and for pilots to apply that to even a small quadcopter you may fly in your backyard,” Schubarth said.

The unmanned aircraft bachelor’s program will offer three concentrations: piloting and operations, repair and maintenance, and electronic systems design.

Ritchey expects about 10 students will enter the program in August. But he anticipates enrollment will grow to more than 50 students by 2020.

LeTourneau started its aviation training in 1956 and was the first university in Texas to be FAA-approved to offer training for air traffic controllers.