UAS Training Grounds

At Northland Community & Technical College, the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry can find certified maintenance techs and a glimpse into the future.
By Luke Geiver | October 21, 2014

Curtis Zoeller and Jon Beck are unmanned aircraft systems veterans (UAS) turned UAS curriculum trailblazers. The duo has developed an educational training model driven by industry input. The team has also created a unique informational delivery system. At the campus of Northland Community & Technical College in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Zoeller and Beck have offered the emerging UAS industry a glimpse into the future of standardized unmanned maintenance training by combining the two. NCTC currently offers the country’s first UAS maintenance training program, and, after roughly three years in existence, the program has earned the respect of some UAS industry giants. Northrup Grumman Corp. requires most UAS technicians to receive five years of UAS maintenance experience before entering the field, or, thanks to the work of Zoeller and Beck, a UAS certificate from NCTC.

For a general audience looking to grasp the potential of a commercialized UAS industry in the U.S., both Zoeller and Beck can offer up both personal and student-based accounts showing real-life UAS success stories. Both Zoeller and Beck have relocated to Thief River Falls to pursue a career in UAS. The two have shared the story of UAS’s potential during many community, legislative and industry tours of their Thief River Falls UAS facility. But, for insight into the behind-the-scenes progression of the UAS industry—specifically how standardized education and certifications can be developed, defined and completed for the entire U.S. industry—Zoeller and Beck can talk for hours. The UAS Magazine visited the NCTC campus to learn the story of Zoeller, Beck and the how the emergence of the small-town’s UAS presence will impact the marketplace. We left with an education on how the UAS industry can be educated.

UAS 101
NCTC’s UAS program was born from a simple question: who maintains the UAVs? At the time of NCTC’s UAS program’s conception in 2011, the answer was very few, if any. Through a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Zoeller and his team were able to establish a program that could provide students with a core knowledge of how to work on UAVs. “We give our students help in understanding a number of advanced systems,” says Zoeller, NCTC’s associate dean of aerospace programs. The core knowledge gained in the program includes insight into mainstream UAS operating systems, engineering and design characteristics and several other elements that make the basics of UAVs seem complex.

To create its curriculum, Zoeller and Beck combined the experience of its team with industry input. Because very few options existed for a UAS maintenance textbook at the time of the program’s start, Zoeller pushed the idea of open source information as the basis for study material. Supplied with manuals and other internal information from UAV manufacturers, the NCTC team has created an evolving curriculum that is verifiable by industry. Students of the program will receive regular visits from industry experts or UAV manufacturers as part of the learning process. The facility has industry-supplied UAVs to train with as well. “We go out to partners like Northrup Grumman to see what their objectives are,” Zoeller says. “Then, we can define those objectives in our curriculum. We are always telling industry partners, we are not trying to reinvent how you build a UAV. We are curriculum development experts.”

According to Zoeller and Beck, the success of the program can be credited to the fact that none of the staff working on the UAS program came to the program with a college teaching background. “We come right out of industry,” he says. The team’s background and willingness to try new educational techniques has helped the program meet the needs of industry and grow enrollment.

“We are not located near a major epicenter. We have had to develop the program through innovative ways,” says Zoeller.

One of the main elements of the program that both Zoeller and Beck positively gush about when the topic is brought up, is the use of telepresence technology. The school has taken the basics of an online classroom and turned it into something worthy of a high-tech industry. Users can log-on to the system on any device, from anywhere. Classrooms equipped with the system allow any user logged in to interact with the system. At any given point, users from multiple locations could be on one of several screens present in one of the telepresence rooms at NCTC. The remote classroom experience mimics a master control room with several screens showing different people or presentations on each screen. “It answers our logistical issues of not being located near a major epicenter,” says Beck, program manager at NCTC.

The combination of industry input, teacher experience and a high-tech learning environment has helped Beck accomplish several of his program’s goals. The students are learning advanced composite structures, computers, electrical networking and avionics systems. A foundation course gives the students a grasp of the industry today, and where it will go in the future. “We aren’t synergizing through emails. We are actually working face-to-face with actual partners,” Beck says. “We are putting things into the curriculum so that when this [UAS] does break, our students will be ready to go.”

Program Highlights
The NCTC team hasn’t had to rely solely on industry input for its teaching sessions. The team has already applied for and received a certificate of authorization from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration for a data collection effort based in Northern Minnesota. According to Beck, NCTC applied for a COA to work with growers in the region. Using a small UAV, members from NCTC are working to collect imagery from a 40-acre research plot along with other acres in the area. The students operate, gather and analyze the images for another ag-based firm in the area through paid internships. “We have been able to develop a true business case that funds the research and activities because of the imagery work with our research partners,” Beck says. During a county commission meeting, Beck and his team were publically thanked by several commission members for the work with UAVs in the area.

In addition to its COA research, Beck has led a UAV summer camp for grades 5 through 11 that included educational sessions on avionics and composite material. Participants of the camp were able to produce the composite frame for a sUAV. Beck and Zoeller have led other UAV workshops for high schools in the region, and Beck recently submitted a proposal for funding for another UAV workshop. “We want to let people know what the career opportunities are going to be in the UAS industry,” he says.

Setting the Standard
The current list of accomplishments for NCTC UAS program is long, and includes the program’s proven curriculum, the integration of industry and telepresence technologyies for educational purposes and enrollment growth, community outreach and maybe most importantly, the supply of skilled UAV maintenance technicians to a growing industry. Someday, however, Zoeller hopes the program will be considered a founding father to industry maintenance and training standards that are used by the entire industry. “What we are trying to do is ensure that this work that has been developed is becoming standardized,” he says. To ensure that, Zoeller is working with industry partners and testing bodies like ASTM.

“Our team has always talked about our unique opportunity to develop where the UAV industry is going and to be able to tell our grandkids, ‘we developed that standard’.”

If Zoeller is successful in streamlining the goals of his program, and making the work of its UAV techs both certifiable and standard across all UAV platforms, the entire industry won’t have to take a step back, he says. The idea of stalled growth in the industry isn’t a concern of the NCTC team. In fact, the team is preparing for more students, an expanded program and a greater presence in the industry. “Right now,” Zoeller says, “anybody that survives today is going to see a lot of growth in the next few years.”


Author: Luke Geiver
Managing Editor, UAS Magazine
[email protected]