Stimulus-funded UAV repair program coming to Minn. college

Global Hawk
Students at Northland Community and Technical College will soon be learning to repair UAV systems on craft like Northrop Gruman's Global Hawk aircraft, an unmanned vehicle used by the U.S Air Force.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Students at Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls will learn how to repair unmanned aircraft as part of a new federal stimulus-backed program.

Experts say it will help make the region a center for unmanned aircraft research and training.

Northland Community and Technical College has 50 years of experience training aircraft mechanics. Scott Fletcher, director of the Aviation Maintenance Program, said that experience positions the school well to move into the unmanned aircraft systems or UAS industry.

"Our vision for the UAS is to be the primary maintenance training on UAS's globally," Fletcher said. "It's a new and emerging industry and it's going to take off here. We want to be on the ground floor. We are on the ground floor and we want to be in place when this hits."

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Fletcher said the program will accept its first students next spring, in 2011. He expects the program to be popular with aircraft mechanics who have lost jobs. A $5 million federal stimulus grant will allow the school to buy the aircraft and tools to train students.

Because of the state budget deficit, local investors and foundations are also putting up funds to help start the program. Fletcher expects to sign a contract with aircraft manufacturer Northrop Grumman to train the mechanics for the Global Hawk aircraft. The Air Force expects to start flying Global Hawk missions from the Grand Forks Air Force Base sometime next year.

Northland Community and Technical College is working with the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center at the University Of North Dakota.

Predator pilot Jonathon Johnson
Predator pilot Jonathon Johnson, left, an air interdiction agent for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, pilots a Predator aircraft in the ground control station for the Predator B unmanned aerial systems (UAS) April 3, 2009, at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection UAS operations center at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., as UAS instructor pilot Bob Concannon operates the sensor controls.
DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp, U.S. Air Force/Released

Center Director Jeff Kappenman said UND is focused on research, education and training. He said the Thief River Falls program adds a key component that can make the region an unmanned aircraft industry center.

"It's a huge thing for Northland and for this Red River Valley region," Kappenman said. "I know there's a state border here obviously, but we're all pulling together to kind of pursue this UAS market."

It's a high stakes gamble for the regional economy. Kappenman said industry analysts predict in the next decade, tens of billions of dollars will go into development and construction of unmanned aircraft. However, one critical part to all of this is that the Federal Aviation Administration must ease restrictions on flying unmanned aircraft.

The military wants to open a large test area in North Dakota. Scott Fletcher is hopeful Thief River Falls will be one of the first airports in the country open to unmanned flights.

"When the FAA opens up the airspace they're not going to open the entire national airspace," he said. "They're going to open up a piece here and a piece there. We'd like to be one of the first pieces opened up so you can fly out of Grand Forks to here and do whatever you need to do. That itself will bring a huge economic boom."

Fletcher said he expects that economic growth to start in the next three to five years.