Inside NMC: Drone Home

Drone Home

NMC's leading edge in the unmanned vehicle industry

By Gayle Neu

TRAVERSE CITY – At Northwestern Michigan College, students can explore the land, sea and air with unmanned vehicles, walking away with a degree and, more importantly, a job.

NMC is one of only a handful of schools in the country to offer a degree path in all three unmanned areas, thanks in part to the area's strong and established assets.

"We're right next to the airport, we have a harbor, a research vessel, a small ROV and an automotive program," said Ed Bailey, director of NMC's Technical Division. "We were able to pull together this program using existing resources, and really relatively inexpensively."

Earlier this year, NMC introduced a new program specializing in unmanned systems and robotics. Students can earn an associate's degree in Engineering Technology with a specialization in one of seven high-tech fields: Automation and Robotics Technology, Computer Technology, Electronics, Photonics, Unmanned Aerial Systems, Marine Technology and Unmanned Ground Vehicles.

Student enrollment exceeded expectations this fall, with a near doubling of the planned enrollment of 25, Bailey said.

"Our enrollment numbers were so high, we had to add sections," he said, attributing the increase to the program's uniqueness. "There's a lot interest in unmanned vehicles and huge growth opportunities for employment and self employment. And for students, it's just kind of a cool field."

Potential commercial uses of unmanned systems include disaster response; weather forecasting; scientific research; agricultural survey of crops, soils, and livestock; crop dusting; wildfire surveillance; power line and pipeline surveying; oil, gas, and mineral exploration; search and rescue; and aerial photography for fields like real estate, construction, film and entertainment industry, and accident investigation.

In an effort to combine its expertise in air, land and marine environments, NMC created an Unmanned Systems and Robotics Center inside the Parsons-Stulen (formerly M-TEC) building at its Aero Park Campus. It's home to unmanned robotic platforms and the technology and systems to support work in the marine environment.

The center is strategically aligned with industry to provide multiple career workforce opportunities in emerging and existing markets.

Here's what's happening inside each unmanned area inside NMC:


NMC is one of the premier colleges in the country for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) operator training. In fact, it is one of only handful such schools in the country.

The fourth incoming UAS class is currently training at NMC.

"The demand is extremely high," said Aviation Director Aaron Cook. "Only one student has graduated so far because all the others have been hired before graduating."

Five NMC aviation students were hired into UAS jobs in 2012. They're primarily being hired by major manufacturers of unmanned vehicles, such as Boeing, General Atomics, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and other Fortune 500 companies, Cook said.

"We don't know of another school that offers all three types of robotics education," he said. "We're training technicians and operators, where others are using these unmanned systems to prove a point in class or as a peripheral tool in research. We're providing direct education for jobs."

NMC is currently one of only a few schools allowed to fly unmanned aircraft, and students do so at the Yuba Airport, just south of Elk Rapids.

Unmanned aircraft, sometimes called "drones," represent a sector of aviation that will undergo exponential growth over the coming years. Although many of the jobs available today are with defense contractors, the civilian job market is expected to dwarf the military sector once the FAA opens up U.S. airspace to commercial UAS operations.

"There are so many ways you can use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), though some are more practical than others," Cook said. "One example is in agriculture. There's a significant problem with pests – like birds, they're a problem for blueberry crops. So, students could create a system where…a sensor could detect the birds…and a helicopter UAV could scare them away."

There are two options for students interested in the UAS industry: They can go through NMC's aviation program and take UAS electives, or they can "be more centric on all unmanned systems" and pursue the two-year Engineering Technology degree.

Interest in NMC’s UAS courses is on the rise, Cook notes. Two years ago, approximately two out of 10 inquires to the NMC aviation department were regarding UAS. This year, he says, seven of 10 inquires are about UAS.

Cook predicts interest in unmanned systems will only get bigger once the FAA publishes new rules and regulations regarding small, unmanned systems, which are expected to be published next year or the following.


At NMC's Great Lakes Water Studies Institute, students in the Freshwater Studies program (launched in 2009 and the only associate-level degree with emphasis in water studies in the United States) have access to unique assets, including a 56-ft., twin-engine research vessel, a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) and hydrographic sonar.

But now, students who pursue NMC's new Engineering Technology degree and choose an emphasis on marine technology and unmanned systems can add ground systems, electronics and robotics to their curriculum.

"Our facilities here rival anywhere in the country or globe because of our position on the water," said Hans Van Sumeren, director of NMC's Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. "People walk in here and can't believe what the have: multiple boats in the harbor, a classroom by the harbor and less than 10 minutes away from deep water by vessel. There's nothing but opportunity when it comes to Traverse City, and the college is a magnet for this type of training."

He said "innovative relationships" with various industry partners (i.e., Kongsberg Underwater Technology, which has donated digital sonar equipment and tech support to freshwater studies students) have led to technical training courses, professional development opportunities, research opportunities and university partnerships.

"Students have found enormous success in the job market because they know how to use this equipment," he said. "One student worked in the mid-Atlantic and was selected out of thousands [for a job] because of attending NMC."

Pending final accreditation review, NMC proposes to offer a Bachelor's of Science in Maritime Technology in 2014 – the first B.S. at a community college in Michigan.


NMC's third degree path – unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) technology – is also gaining momentum with the launch of the new Engineering Technology degree, according to Keith Kelly, NMC Robotics and Automation program coordinator.

Kelly will be teaching two new robotics and automation courses in the spring. Meanwhile this fall, students are taking prerequisite courses, such as programming.

"The stuff we'll do in the spring will involve working with discrete boards, sensors and developing systems," he said. "This is all related to the Makers Movement, where there's a lot of emphasis on people creating technical solutions. It's amazing what people are doing now."

Students who take robotics courses at NMC can utilize a new "Makers Bay" space in the Aero Park Laboratories, a hands-on project workspace with tools that allows them to tackle anything from building an ROV to integrating tracking technology into golf balls.

Unmanned ground applications are often utilized in agriculture, Bailey said – a "perfect fit for our region."

"You hear so much about privacy issues related to drones…but that's not where growth is headed," he said, noting the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International projects the unmanned vehicle systems field to grow by 100,000 jobs over the next decade, with 80 percent of that growth in agriculture.

For more information on unmanned systems or the Engineering Tech degree, contact Ed Bailey at 231-995-1215 or