Former Army drone pilot Michael Cook now works for the fledgling unmanned aerial vehicle program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. (Vicki Daniels/University of Alaska)
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The love affair began when Michael Cook was about 10 years old. That’s when his dad, a CH-47 Chinook mechanic in the Army at the time, began playing with remote-controlled airplanes.
By the time Cook joined the Army, he was ready to go pro, enlisting as an RQ-7 Shadow drone operator, racking up more than 600 flight hours during his 2011 tour in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne Division.
Now with four kids of his own, Cook left active duty last year to take off into the fast-evolving civilian side of the drone world. The 28-year-old Fairbanks, Alaska, native says he was definitely intrigued by the big money available to veteran drone pilots to redeploy downrange as civilian operators.
He was offered a position recently that would have earned more than $100,000 for a year in Afghanistan. “It was very tempting. But do I want to give up my family for another year to have this money? We had a new baby on the way, so I said no.”
Instead, he decided to reach out to the director of the fledgling unmanned aerial vehicle program at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I wanted to introduce myself and let you know I’m here, and if you have any jobs open up in the future, I’d like to apply.’ ” To his surprise, he was offered a job on the spot. “He told me they’d create a job for me. I was blown away.”
The money isn’t nearly as good as what he could be earning downrange, but he’s still making about the same as he was as an E-4 just before leaving active duty. More importantly, he says, he’s still doing what he loves.
“My job satisfaction is very high. I’m still flying UAVs. I get to go to work, fly a remote-controlled plane and get paid for it. It sure beats flipping burgers or selling cars. It’s a job a lot of people envy,” he says.
And it’s in an industry that is only projected to keep flying higher.
According to industry reports, the $6 billion UAV business is expected to nearly double by 2021 while creating thousands of new jobs, and not just for military applications — the Federal Aviation Administration is set to open the skies for the commercial use of drones in 2015.
UAV’s are already seeing growing use among law enforcement groups and are expected to be widely adopted by everyone from news and entertainment outlets to farmers and construction companies. The FAA projects some 30,000 commercial drones will be buzzing the skies by 2030.
Already, the University of Alaska has been using its drones to study sea lions in the Aleutian Islands. More recently they zoomed through smoke-filled brush fires in Florida as part of a firefighting study based out of Eglin Air Force Base.
One of the university’s drones — a quadcopter that’s been described as a “flying smoke detector” dubbed the “Scout” — weighs only 2.5 pounds but carries an HD camera and is sturdy enough to fly in Alaska’s rain, snow and even heavy wind gusts.
Meanwhile, students there are designing next-generation models.
“They have me kind of consulting with the engineering students who will design an aircraft and I’ll look at it and say, ‘Maybe you should put this device here or put the camera maybe up more forward there,’“ Cook says.
“The big thing for them is that I was deployed and I know how these aircraft can act under long tedious hours of constant flight. I can look at them and say, ‘These batteries start failing after 200 chargers — I’ve seen it before,’ or, ‘This aircraft can go this fast without ripping apart.’ So, they’re kind of picking my brain as to how they can make their systems better.”
Meanwhile, Cook is busy building his own fleet of UAVs on the side.
“Ultimately, that’s what I would love to do. Own my own business with these aircraft. I haven’t found anything that they’re not useful for. Forestry Department can use them for counting cattle; farmers can use them to check on crops; firefighters can use them to look at wildfires. There are infinite uses for them.”
It’s an exciting time, he says, like the early days of aviation when there was innovation and new breakthroughs were being made everywhere. In short, his love and his career have plenty of room to soar.
“I’m just so glad I can still be a part of it all.”