GRAND FORKS, N.D.
Two student pilots are seated shoulder to shoulder before a bank of video monitors, maneuvering an unmanned aircraft by keyboard and mouse as the drone descends toward a virtual runway in a suburban landscape.
Aaron Gabrielson and Andrew Regenhard, aviation students at the University of North Dakota and self-proclaimed video-game junkies, could just as well be sitting on a couch playing Xbox. But instead of tapping their fingers on a controller, they're learning to fly the plane and use onboard equipment that includes a camera with a zoom lens.
"Some people argue that nothing is going to be like flying an actual airplane. Granted, looking down and seeing you're 5,000 feet above the ground is pretty exciting, but I've always been addicted to video games, and this is awesome," Mr. Regenhard said.
Mastering the Corsair simulator is the first practice course for the two trainees, who are among hundreds of student pilots nationwide preparing for jobs that don't exist yet. They and their classmates are eager to cash in on the booming market for drone operators that's expected to develop after more unmanned aircraft become legal to fly in U.S. airspace.
The university's unmanned aircraft degree program, the nation's first, exploded from five students in 2009 to 120 students last year. Dozens of other schools offer courses in what's known as UAS -- unmanned aircraft systems -- which range from drones as big as small planes to 2-foot-wide mini-helicopters.
"This pie is pretty big," said Al Palmer, director of UND's unmanned aircraft program. "Everyone can get their little slice of the pie, because we can't do all the training in North Dakota."
The skills needed to fly larger unmanned planes are not unlike those required to fly modern aircraft with computer-based flight controls, professors say. The toughest part of unmanned flying comes with doing it from the ground: You can't feel what's going on.
"You don't have feedback," Mr. Regenhard said. "When you push the yoke forward in the aircraft, you feel yourself and everything going down. With this, you just see it."
Drones are best known for their use by the U.S. military, but other markets beckon. Amazon made a splash earlier this month by unveiling an embryonic effort that might someday deliver packages by drone, though the company acknowledged practical use is years away.
The hopes for civilian drones might not be realized as quickly as many people in the business had hoped. Concerns about security, privacy and whether drones will be able to detect and avoid other aircraft could push the grand opening beyond a 2015 deadline set by Congress.