A Drone Career Takes Flight

Jillian Switzer Ruiz, BS ’11, MBA ’13 headshot
Delivering medicine to people in remote communities. Searching for survivors in areas devastated by hurricanes, fires, and other disasters. Alleviating urban congestion with a new mode of short-distance transport.

These are the kinds of solutions drones can — and in some cases, already do — provide that get Jillian Switzer Ruiz, BS ’11, MBA ’13, excited about the industry in which she’s carved out her career.

“It’s a long way away, but Jetson-era commuting has huge potential,” Ruiz said, referring to individual aircraft like those featured in the popular 1960s animated series. “Commuting is a huge burden. We’re facing unprecedented population growth and traffic congestion. If we could solve this with another mode [of transport], it could be life-changing.”

Ruiz works in business development in the Airspace Mobility Solutions group at Thales, a French aerospace and defense company that specializes in air traffic management. It provides high-tech navigation aids that make flight safer, easier, and more efficient. A focus area for Thales is addressing air traffic management challenges in the rapidly growing drone industry, which involves navigating the previously unchartered territory of low-altitude airspace.

“It’s a highly-choreographed dance in which trained air traffic control professionals are using powerful technology and software to estimate trajectories, to speak directly to pilots, and to make sure that everything is harmonized,” she said. “And now we’re plunging flying cell phones into the sky and trying to figure out what we’re going to do about them. Why are we sending them to the sky? Because they do incredible things.”

My Fordham education gave me a vocabulary and confidence to work in a highly complex technology field alongside super-smart professionals.”

Her interest in drones kick-started when Ruiz landed a job at Google Maps after earning her bachelor’s degree in marketing at the Gabelli School. A member of the first cohort of the Global Business Honors Program, Ruiz graduated summa cum laude both as an undergraduate and later when she earned her MBA in information systems, also at Fordham. She has remained closely connected to her alma mater, most recently as an adjunct professor.

“Working at Google, I learned how to unlock innovative thinking,” she said. “It was very revelatory for me because it changed how I approach my life and career. I felt like I had the keys to be in the driver’s seat.” In the course she taught for four years, “Brokering Innovation,” Ruiz introduced students to practical tools for creative problem-solving and thinking outside the box.

The Texas native said that her Fordham education gave her a “vocabulary and confidence” to work in a highly complex technology field alongside “super-smart” professionals. “Aviation can be pretty intimidating. There are a lot of subject-matter experts who speak in code and acronyms and have very specialized backgrounds.”

To better understand the industry, Ruiz took an even deeper dive: she earned her remote pilot license and took flight lessons in light sport aircraft, completing a solo flight from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara and back.

“It’s an incredibly expensive hobby,” joked Ruiz, who now lives in California with her husband and two-year-old son. “I wasn’t going to be a lifetime pilot, but it gave me a lot more context about the aerospace industry.”

—Claire Curry