UAV Tradition Builders

At Sinclair Community College, the UAS industry has become the priority to keep its long-history in the aerospace industry alive and well. To do that, the school has formed several unique business partnerships that benefit all parties involved.
By Luke Geiver | January 12, 2015

Sinclair Community College has been offering aviation classes since 1911. Deb Norris and Andrew Shepherd are making sure the Ohio-based school can continue its long tradition in the aerospace world. The duo has helped to spearhead the formation of a unique, unprecedented unmanned aircraft systems program capable of training future UAS operators, designers and data analysts. They’ve also helped give something to the UAS industry of North America that has never been done before: an indoor UAV flight test range.

In 2008, after several major manufacturing companies pulled out of Dayton, Ohio, Norris, the vice president for workforce development at Sinclair, and Shepherd, now UAS director at the school, began searching for an emerging market that the school could rally behind. Norris knew then that the school could grow by taking advantage of the surrounding community’s capabilities, which still included manufacturing and also data analytics. “In the fall of 2008 we went on a trade mission to Israel with the purpose of researching UAS technologies that we might form partnerships around,” Norris says. “We also wanted IP that we could form basic business around in the U.S.”

After the Israel trip and some following market research performed by the school and third-party consultants, Norris, Shepherd and the school’s leadership team decided to invest in a national center for UAS training. The school was built on a three-legged stool, Norris says, that includes access to airspace, simulation and modeling and a leading edge curriculum backed by industry partners that know how to analyze data. “That is the only reason you are going to fly an application. It is about gathering and then understanding your data,” Norris says.

Since committing to the UAS program, the school has invested roughly $7 million. Ohio has provided another $4 million, and in addition, the school has earned other income sources. Norris created a pro-forma early on in the program’s formation, complete with tasks, goals and a timeline. Through consulting and other engagements, Norris and the team have already met all of its financial and time-specific UAS goals, an element of the effort that Norris is proud of.

Earlier this year the team hosted an opening ceremony for its indoor training facility. The 28,000 square foot facility—a former university printing building—has an impressive list of UAV amenities available for students.

The facility includes a UAS simulation center and a sensors avionics lab. Shepherd can offer his students access to turbo-prop UAVs along with other electric small UAVs. A 3-D printer allows students to print a UAV platform and then assemble a full unit before test flights at the range. The range consists of 3,200 square feet with a mezzanine level to allow operators to stand 14-feet above ground to watch the UAVs from above if necessary. The indoor range is also GPS permeable, so UAVs equipped with GPS will allow the students to test UAV programs that have such software capability.

“We know we can run a lab in any weather conditions. You aren’t as worried about students making a mistake,” Shepherd says. “If they fly into the wall it is not the end of the world.”

The indoor range will also allow students to perform pre-flight checks and crash assessment briefings, Shepherd says. Flight testing capabilities are important to Sinclair, Norris says. Testing allows the students to gain the experience needed in the workplace. Norris says here background in economic development has taught her to focus on establishing a talent pipeline before working to attract new businesses. To help expand both Sinclair’s capabilities in attracting students and offering a cutting edge curriculum, Norris and Shepherd have worked to partner with industry, including many partnerships that are not based in Ohio. “We are seeing that you want to find as many connection points across the country as possible,” she says.

One of those connections has already paid off for both the school and the industry. Sinclair has partnered with UAV designer and manufacturer Altavian. “We wanted a more strategic partnership that just buying some of their UAV’s,” Norris says. Through its partnership with Altavian, Sinclair is educating students on the Altavian UAV platform—how to fly and maintain it. Because Altavian was focused on research and development and less on training, Sinclair was able to find a need it could fulfill for the company by training future Altavian pilots that are also purchasing units for commercial use post-graduation.

To date, Shepherd has helped provide UAS interns to operations around the world, and, each year when the program offers short-term workshops, the attendees include participants from places as far away as Italy, he says.

“We are application focused now, but we fully intend to add other specialties such as data analytics or maintenance,” Norris says. “We are looking at this as an investment in the future.”