Gender Inclusion in the Drone Industry Is Becoming a Top National Priority

It’s well known that the technology industry is heavily male-dominated.  Women make up just a small fraction of jet pilots – about 5% – and hold less than 27% of all tech-related jobs.  The same extreme gender imbalance is still found in the unmanned aerial vehicle industry.  But movement is afoot.

A growing number of elementary and secondary schools are adding drones to their standard curricula and after-school training programs.  Drone summer camps are also proliferating nationwide.  Drones are viewed as a fun and creative way to generate interest in STEM topics among youth, especially women and traditionally disadvantaged groups.  Many of these programs are self-funded or receive support from local and national businesses or from educational foundations.

But in an unprecedented move the US Air Force, concerned, in part, over possible shortages in drone pilots and technicians, has begun actively promoting women’s participation in the fast-growing drone industry.  In a partnership with the Drone Racing League (DRL), USAF plans to recruit women to become drone pilots to race in sports competitions and to enlist in the Air Force.  Under the banner of “Women Taking Flight,” the duo also want to promote a new STEM curriculum to encourage more women to participate in traditionally male-dominated technology industries.

Barry Dickey, a top Air Force recruiter, says the DRL and USAF share the goal of promoting a more diverse pool of drone pilots and connecting them with tech innovators. “DRL, and this partnership, helps us inform women of opportunities in the Air Force and Space Force, so we’re thrilled to help these women pilots soar to new heights and Aim High,” he says.

Drone racing has become a huge national sport in recent years.  It first began in 2011 when a group of amateur drone pilots congregated in Karlsruhe, Germany to launch a number of semi-organized races.  The basic goal, as in all races, is to be the fastest.  In drone competitions, the participants race their aircraft using headsets that give them a first-person view of the drone as it flies over and through a series of obstacles.  Drone operators don’t just view their drones in flight; they direct their movements remotely with a joystick.  It requires great skill to maneuver the aircraft to avoid crashes and collisions.  While racing drones typically fly at 100 mph or more, it takes more than sheer speed to win.

And drone races are no longer just local events.  Competitions are held in stadiums all over the world and live-streamed online.  DRL has its own YouTube channel, with almost 130k subscribers.  But DRL is just the largest and most prominent league.  New ones are springing up every year.  And increasingly the competitions are being staged virtually, without any physician venue.  The opportunities for expansion are limitless.

DRL is well aware that many of the newer racing leagues – outside the Big 5 – are beginning to cater to demographics outside the current mainstream – especially women.  Its own female fandom has grown fourfold in recent years.  As they become more involved as racing watchers, more women are wondering why they aren’t racing themselves.  As the sports industry leader, DRL has come to recognize that it’s time to respond to this growing demand.

And that dawning awareness has dovetailed nicely with growing concerns at USAF about future shortages of drone pilots and technicians. Men are still drawn primarily to manned aircraft while drones open up an entirely new niche.  With the rapid expansion of drone development across the military services, USAF is getting out in front of demographic trends and seeking new ways to bring women in the service.

A partnership with DRL’s “Women in Flight” is good PR for the service, but it’s also a training ground and incubator for future drone pilots, whose diversity may be essential to staffing an ever-expanding military drone force.

This is only a small beginning.  Women recruited to the league will have an opportunity to train with DRL Champion Pilots and compete in a virtual tournament on the DRL’s SIM program – a true-to-life racing video game.  Winners will qualify for a professional DRL contract to become a DRL pilot and will also help guide a future drone-related STEM program aimed at women.

“Our DRL Women Taking Flight platform will inspire women and girls to pursue their dream careers as drone pilots, athletes and engineers while helping them develop their skills so they can compete on the highest stages,” DRL President Rachel Jacobson said in a prepared statement this month.

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