College program builds interest in emergent unmanned aircraft industryby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Thief River Falls, Minn. — A first of its kind program in Thief River Falls is training students to repair and maintain unmanned aircraft.
The program just started this month at Northland Community and Technical College, but officials there say companies are already trying to recruit graduates.
Three years ago the aviation mechanic program at Northland Community and Technical College nearly shut down because of a lack of students. Consolidation in the airline industry eliminated mechanic jobs and student interest in the profession.
That's when school officials decided to focus on unmanned aircraft systems, often referred to as UAS.
This fall, the college will have 70 new students in its unmanned aviation program, Dean for Aviation Jim Retka said.
"Obviously the development of our new UAS program had a lot to do with that," Retka said of the number of students in the technicians program.
Students need to pass a standard aircraft maintenance program before they can take the six-month specialized unmanned aircraft training.
Tyler Beckman of Pemberbon, Minn., is one of three students in the first class. He looks forward to the class projects, which including building a four-propeller, helicopter-like aircraft about two feet wide. The plane is loaded with electronics and computer chips.
"All these little boxes here, they each do a very important task," he said. "This right here is sonar and it's able to tell how high it is off the ground just by sonar. It's awesome, it's really cool."
Students use a laptop computer to program a flight path for the unmanned aircraft.
Beckman already completed the 20-month basic aviation mechanic course, but he says unmanned aircraft offer new and exciting challenges. He decided to spend another six months to pursue the unmanned aircraft technician training.
"There is a lot of electrical troubleshooting a person would have to do, and a lot of computer work," he said. "I'm very interested in electronics and the way computers work because I'm kind of a techie guy. I'm sure there's going to be lots of opportunities.
Beckman said he's already heard from companies interested in hiring him when he completes the program.
Over the next couple of years, Northland also hopes to attract former Northwest Airlines mechanics who already have basic skills and could go directly into the UAS program.
The unmanned aircraft technician training is so new there's not yet a test to certify graduates meet industry standards.
Northland UAS and Aviation Chief Operating Officer Scott Fletcher said the college asked the unmanned aviation industry what should be included in the curriculum. The school also worked with an industry group, the national Center for Aerospace and Transportation Technologies, to develop standards for unmanned aircraft technicians. Fletcher said a national certification test should be ready by early next year when the first students graduate. Jobs will be waiting.
"There is a significant need for qualified maintenance technicians in the UAS arena," he said. "Some of the manufacturers have expressed an interest in coming in to recruit our graduates. So the jobs are there."
So far, most of the jobs are related to the Department of Defense or companies that build the unmanned aircraft.
Unmanned aircraft are rare in U.S. skies. The Federal Aviation Administration allows them to fly only under special, very restrictive permits. The FAA is still working on regulations to allow unmanned aircraft to share national airspace.
When that happens there will be a lot of new uses for unmanned aircraft in agriculture, law enforcement and a variety of other industries, said Retka, dean of aviation programs at the Thief River Falls school. That's prompting development of another new program at the school, imagery analysis.
"We need to figure out how to train people who can look at streaming video and decide what's important and what's garbage," Retka said. "And then with the stuff that's important, what do I do with that information?" Retka also envisions other new related programs in the next few years as the college tries to build a reputation as a leader in unmanned aircraft operations training.
- Morning Edition, 08/30/2011, 6:45 a.m.