Maintenance Training for Unmanned Aircraft Systems

Over the past few years most of us have heard of the unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV, sometimes called remotely piloted aircraft or RPA. A quick search on the Internet will provide you with a host of pictures and explanations of these new technology flying machines. Last year thousands of people watched first hand as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection “Predator B” arrived at EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, WI.

The typical UAV also has several support functions that are all equally necessary in order to operate, and the term unmanned aircraft system or UAS was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and the term UAS has also been adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A typical UAS consists of the aircraft, one or more ground control functions, information data-links, and other equipment that together make up the “system.”

Currently, most UAS are operated by government or military organizations, however, civilian manufacturing, research, and education groups are also operating them. Many see the UAS as an emerging segment of the aviation industry. The civilian applications talked about include law enforcement and surveillance, fire patrol, search and rescue, electric transmission line and pipeline patrol, agriculture, photography and imagery, mapping, and freight.

This brings us to the following questions. Will this emerging industry create jobs? Where will the civilian-use UAS be operated and maintained? And finally, how can a person receive maintenance training on UAS? The training question is being answered by Northland Community and Technical College (NCTC) located in Thief River Falls, MN.

A little background

The October 2008 issue of AMT featured an article titled “Bootstraps” by the late Bill O’Brien. The story spoke about the challenges faced by a rural A&P school in the northern United States — yes NCTC. A few years ago the enrollment plummeted and the school president had no choice but to put the school on suspended status due to financial reasons. I won’t review the entire article with you, but in short the students that were left didn’t give up. With the city of Thief River Falls on their side they began contacting state legislators and eventually the school agreed to review the decision to close down the school. This A&P school was almost lost.

In February of this year, the Aviation Maintenance Program at NCTC was awarded a grant for nearly $5 million, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), to establish the Northland Community & Technical College Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance Training Center — the first of its kind for a school like this. First you might say that’s quite a turnaround, followed by, why all of this in northern Minnesota, some 70 miles from the Canadian border? In order to understand this very interesting program I visited NCTC and one of the area’s other aerospace education organizations the University of North Dakota (UND).

Opportunity and the grant

Scott Fletcher was hired at NCTC as the director of aviation in early 2009 and the aviation program was at a low point. Fletcher recalls, “In early 2008 the aviation program had nine students. Later that year when Bill O’Brien did his article we were up to 25 students, but still not enough to maintain.” Shortly after beginning his new role he attended the 2009 UAS Summit in neighboring Grand Forks, ND. Part of the U.S. Air Force Base Realignment and Closure decision of 2005, was for Grand Forks Air Force Base (AFB) to transition to UAS missions by the end of 2010. More than 170 representatives from the government, military, civilian aerospace, UND, and others attended the two-day UAS action summit designed to spotlight the future of the UAS.

Fletcher returned from this summit thinking about all he heard and immediately went to work communicating with his colleagues at NCTC, UND Aerospace, and area industry, government, and groups who all had some stake in the region’s UAS activity. He saw an opportunity for the ailing A&P school to be part of this emerging and exciting industry.

During the search for funding to develop the program he received an email regarding the possibility for the grant. Fletcher shares, “Basically I had eight days to submit a 50-page grant application as part of the ARRA.” NCTC immediately contacted Fox Consulting of Minneapolis, MN, for assistance and a comprehensive grant application was submitted on time.

Developing UAS maintenance training

The UAS maintenance course curriculum, which is currently under development, will consist of a 16-credit four-month semester. Having an A&P certificate is the only prerequisite for the UAS maintenance program. Fletcher says, “What the industry appears to be asking for in a UAV maintenance technician is a blend of several skills; an aircraft maintenance technician/A&P, avionics technician, computer programmer, and information technology (IT) specialist.” The curriculum is being developed with an eye toward civilian aviation, keeping in mind the Federal Aviation Regulations such as parts 91, 135, and 121. NCTC hopes to work with the FAA to be an authority for future UAS Maintenance Technician certification should this happen.

The course will begin with a basic understanding of the elements that make up the UAS, such as the aircraft itself, the equipment in the aircraft, the equipment used by the operators on the ground, and all that goes with the data transfer between the aircraft and the ground. Knowledge in subjects such as server languages, network protocol, and computer operating systems will all have a place in UAS maintenance. A large part of the curriculum will be related to IT in order to troubleshoot and make adjustments on various parts of — again “the system.”

“We’re also looking to purchase the basic airframe shell of a UAS for use in the school,” says Fletcher, and he goes on to say the UAS aircraft is actually simple and does not have the all of the same complex mechanical systems typical of today’s modern airliner or corporate jet. As an example, most have one powerplant, a relatively simple landing gear system, and no support systems for humans. One course they do plan to strengthen is the existing advanced composite repair curriculum.

The Northland UAS Maintenance Training Center will be located with the existing NCTC Aviation Program campus at the Thief River Falls airport. The plan is to begin by offering some limited courses in the spring of 2011, with the full course offering in the fall of 2011. The current A&P curriculum at NCTC is 20 months. As students complete the A&P program they can enter the UAS program. If you already have an A&P certificate you can enter directly into the UAS program. Graduates will receive a UAS Maintenance Certificate from NCTC upon completion of the course. Additionally, the school is working with the National Center for Aerospace and Transportation Technologies (NCATT) for an NCATT certificate. Graduates from the complete aviation program will be able to leave with an A&P, a UAS certificate, and a NCATT certificate in 24 months. Eventually they would like to offer UAS maintenance courses as part of an on-line learning program. “The UAS maintenance program gives NCTC graduates viable options for future employment in the aviation and aerospace industry,” says Fletcher.

This UAS maintenance program is not only focused on new A&P students. It is open to current aircraft maintenance technicians looking to learn new technologies or interested in a career change, and it offers an opportunity for displaced aviation maintenance technicians.

Job market

Since the UAS industry in civilian applications is new, figures relating to future jobs are estimates. I was told that 300 trained UAS technicians will be needed in the next three years. Al Palmer, UND Aerospace Director of the Center for UAS Research, Education, and Training, says, “The demand for qualified UAS technicians is growing. The UAS industry today is similar to where aviation was at the end of World War I.” There are also the spin-off jobs that are emerging. “Currently the UAS industry is drowning in data,” Palmer says, “and there are a number of opportunities for data analysis, software, and IT related companies.” NCTC is in the process of hiring additional staff to develop, manage, and to teach the new courses already having a positive economic impact on the local area. There were 425 attendees at the 2010 UAS Summit in Grand Forks, ND, indicating the interest in this potential emerging industry.

I asked Fletcher what advice he has for other aviation maintenance schools and he offered the following, “We are living in changing times so set your school and your students up for future success by considering different or multiple career paths.” As an example, he goes on to mention that aviation, UAS, and even the wind turbine industry all have similarities with cross-over skills.

It’s apparent from my visit that there is a lot of excitement surrounding the UAS program. The emerging UAS segment is interesting and I anxiously await my next visit to the NCTC UAS Maintenance Center. AMT

For information regarding the NCTC Aviation Program and the Northland UAS Maintenance Training Center call (218) 683-8802 or visit