By Barrie Barber
DAYTON — Sinclair Community College has invested millions of dollars in southwest Ohio’s unmanned aerial systems industry in advance of an anticipated job boom.
The downtown Dayton college has become a key part of a regional strategy to train a UAS-ready workforce.
“It’s a major element in our overall strategy,” said Maurice McDonald, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president of aerospace and defense. “Training and education and certification of people to be able to operate (and) to be able to maintain these systems is a key element.”
Last week, Sinclair added another piece to its expanding program of new facilities, curriculum and equipment when it announced the college’s field house will serve as the largest indoor unmanned aerial vehicle flying range in Ohio.
Sinclair has spent more than $5 million since 2009 on curriculum, flight simulators and a fleet of more than 50 mostly small UAVs. The school has won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly three large drones at both Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport and Wilmington Air Park. The community college also has asked the FAA for permission to fly more large drones above the Miami Valley.
And, during the next two years, Sinclair will open the $5 million National UAS Training and Certification Center in a renovated campus building. The state has contributed $4 million to build the center.
An economic development priority
The state has targeted growth of the UAS industry one of Ohio’s top economic development priorities.
An Association of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems study released last year projected the UAS industry in Ohio would gain 2,700 jobs and have a $2.1 billion impact by 2025. Nationally, the study predicted more than 100,000 jobs and more than $82 billion pumped into the U.S. economy by the middle of next decade. Precision agriculture and first responders like law enforcement officers and firefighters will be key potential UAV users, observers say.
“By 2020, we’d like the region and the state to have as much…as we can get,” said Deborah Norris, Sinclair vice president of workforce development and corporate services.
Within the industry, Gainesville, Fla.-based UAV manufacturer Altavian Inc. selected Sinclair as one of two colleges nationwide to train pilots to fly its drones.
“Obviously, the Dayton community is bubbling in the UAS market,” said Thomas Rambo, Altavian chief operating officer. Sinclair is “one of the few out there actually taking it seriously and even fewer getting state money and putting people though the program.”
Beavercreek-based Woolpert Inc, a survey mapping firm. announced an agreement this year with Sinclair to tap the college’s computing center to process drone data.
“I think Sinclair is strategically positioning itself to be a UAS instruction facility for our entire country,” said Frank Beafore, executive director of SelectTech GeoSpatial Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Springfield.
Interest in UAS courses has grown steadily, college officials say.
Sinclair counts 157 students who declared a major in UAS-related studies and more than 650 students have taken UAS-related courses. Sinclair does not have statistics on how many graduates have been placed in UAS jobs “because the program is still very new,” Norris said in an email Friday.
A big payoff?
College officials acknowledge the investment in the industry is big but said the interest in UAS bodes well for increased demand of a highly-trained workforce.
“This is really capital intensive but we think the payback for the Dayton region and for Ohio will be big,” said Sinclair President Steven Johnson. “We’re pretty confident that we have a very good shot of having a number of people working in the industry.”
The college is one of three in the nation that has both aviation and unmanned aerial systems programs, joining Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of North Dakota. Sinclair has partnered with Ohio State University to build a UAS curriculum and also has drone-related partnerships with Wright State University, the University of Dayton, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Air Force Institute of Technology and other educational institutions.
“Sinclair is filling the vacuum that we’ve had in the region in this UAS struggle” among diffuse institutions working in the field, said Kerry D. Taylor, director of the Ohio Aerospace Hub in Dayton. “The one who’s actually putting in the investment, the ones who’ve made a very aggressive move in building the UAS domain in the region, is Sinclair.”
Taylor meets with prospective drone employers interested in the Dayton region and consults with Sinclair as a first step, he said.
The college has a goal to be a national leaders in UAS education, Norris said.
“We felt with the importance of UAS to the state of Ohio and to this region, being a nation leader would be an economic driver,” Norris said. “Because nothing existed in UAS, we have had to build it from the ground up.”
Will jobs be there?
The FAA needs to issue the rules on flying small UAVs for the industry to take off, Beafore said.
Congress has mandated the FAA integrate drones into manned civilian airspace by next year, but many observers have predicted it won’t happen that soon.
“The FAA still has a lot of regulations to nail down, but once they do, that’s going to open a large need for pilots,” Beafore said. “Once that happens there’s going to be a need for people with talent that Sinclair generates.”
Phil Finnegan, a drone expert at the Virginia-based Teal Group, also predicted new jobs on the horizon.
“There definitely will be growth of new jobs in the UAS industry as commercial operations begin,” he said. “At this point, what everyone is waiting for is the FAA to take steps to begin to open air space and that’s going to take time.”
The FAA rule making process, which will include public comments in the decision-making, could take a few years prior to small UAVs flying, he said.
“The expectation is with something this controversial we’re likely to see a delay of several years, probably two, possibly three years … before there’s an actual rule,” Finnegan said.