by Jonathan Beck
UAS Instructor/Program Manager
Unmanned Aircraft Systems – Aviation
Northland Community & Technical College
Published in Midwest Flyer – Dec 2016/Jan 2017
The past year in aviation has been full of advances, including a technology at the forefront of public interest, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). Northland Community & Technical College has worked steady over the past 57 years to provide high quality education and training for technicians on how to maintain the growing fleet of aircraft and new technology. Over the past decade, remarkable innovation has been seen and Northland’s model has continued to innovate with the times. This past year Northland was awarded a project grant (DUE 1501629) by the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) Program to provide access and awareness to UAS technology education. As part of the project, Northland engaged educators across secondary and post-secondary education and provided workshops to expand knowledge about this technology that will influence the future of many industries. Educators came from a wide range of disciplines including aerospace, agriculture, engineering, robotics, chemistry, mathematics, geography, public safety, and computer science. Each participant brought a unique perspective on how they believed UAS would change their area of interest. To encourage students in these areas, Northland also hosted summer camps. The camps not only taught students about the mechanics, electronics and maintenance of UAS, but also the applications for the technology that will impact future careers.
The Red River Valley Region, where Northland is located, has become a hub of activity that will grow the future careers in UAS technology. Located 60 miles west of Northland’s Aerospace Campus is the Grand Forks Air Force Base. The primary missions out of the base today are Customs & Border Protection MQ-9 Reaper (66-foot wingspan aircraft) and the Air Force Global Hawk (135-foot wingspan aircraft). Besides the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and public missions, it is home to “Grand Sky,” the nation’s first UAS business development park. Grand Sky broke ground late 2015 and secured large corporations as tenants and stakeholders, such as Northrop Grumman and General Atomics, but is also structured in a way to be an incubator to many other companies who will shape the UAS industry.
The Grand Sky development is one example across the country that is creating new jobs. Northland Community & Technical College has expanded its facility to meet the demands for highly skilled technicians across a broad range of industries. In May 2015, Northland broke ground on a 22,000 square foot remodel to increase the state-of-the-art training facility and labs. Lab spaces were updated to the latest technology, including virtual conference room lab environments, allowing students to attend classes through a distance interface, as well as to bring industry experts into the classroom from anywhere in the world.
Innovation in aviation is also driving a workforce with a multi-disciplinary understanding of technology. This has led to moving the imagery analysis, geospatial intelligence, electronics and robotics programs to the Aerospace Campus. Students in these programs are able to see multiple aspects of the technology creating a deeper impact in their education and an opportunity to increase knowledge across related programs.
A rapid changing industry requires frequent evaluation of changes and a plan for adapting. To ensure alignment to meeting industry needs, Northland has worked with external organizations to validate curriculum and the effectiveness of graduates in industry. One of the ways this has been facilitated is through a continued DACUM process. A DACUM, or development of a curriculum, ensures that current programs align to specific careers and the required technical skills of an employee. In 2011, when Northland launched the nation’s first UAS maintenance program, Northland worked with the National Center for Aerospace and Transportation Technologies (NCATT) to help facilitate a workshop of industry experts to define the skills required of a UAS Maintenance Technician. NCATT was recognized for identifying industry standards and credentials. Since then it has become part of the worldwide organization, American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), known for advising the Federal Aviation Administration on recommendations and policy.
The past 6 years have brought about amazing changes in aviation and UAS technology. To ensure students are well prepared for meeting industry needs, Northland engaged with ASTM and SpaceTEC, a NSF-ATE National Resource Center for Aerospace Technician Education, to revisit UAS maintenance technician standards. The results will be integrated into Northland’s program and through SpaceTEC are leading to new UAS maintenance technician hands-on performance evaluations driven by industry demands.
These standards will also help the FAA enact new regulations pertaining to the credentials and standards for performing maintenance on UAS. The FAA has already taken action on regulations to govern small UAS, but their work will continue as they evaluate the operations of larger systems and develop performance-based risk matrix and access the requirements of technicians working on larger systems that will fly over the populated areas every day.
To assist in all integration efforts, the FAA launched ASSURE (Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence) program. ASSURE will assist the FAA in the integration of UAS into the National Airspace System and all of the ancillary requirements. ASSURE possesses the expertise, infrastructure and outstanding track record of success that the FAA Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems demands. Northland is one of only two, 2-year colleges on the ASSURE team; the other 23 educational institutions are the world’s leading 4-year research institutions and hundreds leading industry and government partners. Stakeholders are working together to ensure a positive trajectory for UAS technology.
Companies in the UAS industry have acknowledged the need to grow the pipeline for highly educated technicians to maintain the expanding fleet of UAS. Many companies have engaged with Northland to fill their current – but more importantly growing – future needs for UAS technicians. This has led to industry partners investing time, resources and donations to grow the programs at Northland. Minnesota-based manufacturer Sentera LLC, located in Minneapolis, has donated many small UAS, including fixed-wing and multi-rotor systems, camera sensor payloads, and provided engineering expertise and technical support. Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, recently donated a quarter of a million-dollar takeoff and landing system for a tactical size UAS.
Another principle partner in developing the UAS maintenance program was Northrop Grumman. Northrop has made a substantial investment into the program and graduates with continue support from the beginning. Today, Northrop employs many Northland graduates throughout the world for some of the most coveted positions in the industry. As a continued commitment to seeing Northland UAS programs succeed, Northrop Grumman recently donated more than 13 airframes, including fixed-wing (12-14 ft. wingspan) and multi-rotor systems and all of the associated ground control station equipment for the Bat-12 and R-Bat. These types of investments show the commitment and certainty of industry partners and the need to continue growing education and the high-quality technicians to meet industry needs.
These types of relationships are a defining characteristic of the high-quality resources and education Northland provides to continue advancing UAS technology and expanding the envelop in the aviation community. The support and dedication of industry partners is greatly appreciated by Northland, and our graduates look forward to the opportunity to meet industry demands in exciting career fields. Northland Community & Technical College is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
This material is based in part upon work supported by the
National Science Foundation (DUE 1501629). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.