Thanks to astonishingly rapid growth in the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, a.k.a., “drone”) industry, there are now tremendous opportunities for software engineers with hardware sensibilities and a toolbox full of compatible hard- and soft-skills.
The Boom and Beyond
A few years ago, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted that the drone industry would create 100,000 jobs by 2025, accompanied by an economic impact of $82 billion. More than 20 industries—representing some diverse business models—have already received exemptions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to operate drones commercially in the National Airspace System. As the commercial applications of drones expand, the number of companies operating them will, as well.
It will take a lot of collective effort to produce enough technologists to fill all those positions that will open up over the next several years. Colleges and universities across the country are already trying to take up that slack by developing comprehensive drone studies programs.
Crossover Skill Sets
Even if you don’t want to go back to school or haven’t worked with drones professionally, there’s good news: A lot of existing software skills will transfer to drone work.
“What we are really looking in this drone space isn’t reinventing the wheel,” said Andrew Slater, vice president of software at PrecisionHawk, the Raleigh, N.C.-based, end-to-end maker of drones for remote sensing. “Ninety-nine percent of what we do is problem solving. Beyond the ability to write good code, the candidates we look at have great problem-solving skills.”
Unlike many other UAV companies, PrecisionHawk focuses on the end-to-end system, from collection to analysis. Accordingly, the company’s need for candidates with a wide range of skills gives some insight into the required and recommended skill sets for the drone industry as a whole.
“We deal with a lot of remote sensing data,” Slater said. “We operate with a data-first mentality; however, because we have this complete system… Our hardware and software teams have to be able to work cohesively, establish scalable specifications and define software/hardware interfaces.”
The Gritty Details
PrecisionHawk uses proprietary software, but its tech-hiring managers look for candidates who possess advanced knowledge and experience in the following areas:
- C / C++/ASM
- VxWorks and Linux
- Flight control embedded systems
- Real-time processing
- Multithreaded programming
- AWS: S3, SQS, EC2, IAM
“Preferred skills” include:
- Knowledge of complete end-to-end flight systems, including: ground system, hardware, software, ground support equipment and simulators
- Experience with MATLAB/Simulink coders
- Ability to comprehend circuit design data and documentation
- Experience in robotics and/or embedded programming for unmanned vehicles
Familiarity with the following will make you stand out:
- UEFI Boot firmware
- Intel’s SoC hardware
- Gumstix, ARM
- API design and maintenance
- ESRI, Proj4j, PostGIS, GRASS, World Wind, Google Earth, QGIS
Languages and Soft Skills
Depending on specific requirements, companies may also ask for knowledge of the following:
Critical soft skills include:
- Above-average written and verbal skills
- Ability to work comfortably in a collaborative environment
- Interacting professionally with customers, management and other developers
- Ability to attain a secure clearance
Must Love Drones
Like any industry, coming in with knowledge of the latest developments—and an affinity for the underlying technology—is a plus. “Many of our best programmers and developers have their own drones,” Slater said. “They appreciate the industry and understand the general language and jargon. That genuine interest allows them to really buy into the project they’re working on.”