By Nick Geinert, Aircraft Technician University of North Dakota, NDPAMA President
We have been hearing for some time that there is an aircraft mechanic shortage. It is getting tougher to fill open positions, and that problem is not exclusive to manned aircraft. The Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) industry is also scrambling for qualified maintainers. North Dakota doesn’t have its own Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) training program, and the closest one is located in neighboring Minnesota. Northland Community and Technical College, 45 miles across the border in Thief River Falls, MN, has a large aviation facility dedicated to an A&P program that has run for over 50 years. In 2011, they began offering a UAS certificate to the students.
Currently, there is no FAA approved curriculum or certification basis for UAS maintenance like there is for the A&P certificate. Industry-wide, much of the maintenance training is provided by the manufacturer for their own specific aircraft model. On the other hand, the UAS program requirements at Northland were developed with the help of an advisory committee that included General Atomics, Northrop Grumman, and other UAS industry leaders. That helped create a universal training program that would apply to most unmanned systems.
I spoke with Zach Nicklin, an Unmanned Aerial Systems Instructor at Northland College, and he gave some insight on the industry and on their UAS maintenance program. Zach said employers are contacting Northland often looking for graduates. He also stated that their students have a 100% placement rate in the industry, if they can pass a background check. He estimated that about half of the graduates are hired by Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, or System Dynamics International, which have facilities in North Dakota.
There are three educational tracks for unmanned systems to take at Northland. The Large Unmanned Aerial System program is the track typically taken by the A&P students. It educates students on the maintenance and repair of the components of unmanned aerial systems, including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Ground Control Stations (GCSs), understanding the function of data links or the communication and guidance system between vehicle and satellites (line of sight), and a basic understanding of computer networks and their functionality within UAS. The UAS certificate is a 30 credit addition to the A&P program and the students take it during summer semesters. It adds $8,000 dollars to the tuition bill.
Second, they offer a Small Unmanned Aerial System program aimed at people other than aircraft mechanics. The Small UAS program focuses on using UAVs where it could be beneficial to their careers or jobs, such as firemen, surveyors, or crop consultants. The course is designed to give the student a broad understanding of small UAS at the functional and operational level. It is a 13 credit course offered in the summer that includes regulations, aircraft systems on under 35 pound aircraft, remote sensing, and ground school for the Part 107 license.
The third track is an Associates of Applied Sciences (A.A.S.) degree program. That track includes the previously discussed Small UAS program but also two years of electronics coursework.
The growth of unmanned flight in North Dakota has created a need for maintainers. Maybe in the future, your local FBO will have a Cessna 172 parked next to the newest UAS crop sprayer. Looking forward, the industry will need to adapt and train qualified maintainers for continued safe flight.