There may be a day when remotely piloted aircraft regularly ply the skies above the United States.
In anticipation of that day, L-3 Link Simulation & Training and the University of North Dakota in June are opening an unmanned aerial systems training center at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D.
L-3 Link, which provides MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper simulators for the military, believes there will be a demand for domestic drone pilots who will need pilot certification, said Jeff Schram, director of business development at the Arlington, Texas-based company.
“The Federal Aviation Administration is going to have a certification process, and that keeps getting closer and closer,” he said in an interview. Originally, the agency talked about putting a UAS certification process in place by 2019. The latest word is that may happen as soon as 2013 or 2014, he added.
L-3 Link decided there was a business opportunity, and chose UND as its partner. The university has a robust aeronautics program that graduates students with certifications. It has some 130 aircraft at its disposal as teaching tools and conducts research into unpiloted aircraft systems. It also offers a major in unmanned aircraft systems operations.
L-3 Link will provide instructors and course development and training for pilots and payload operators. It will also supply a high-fidelity simulator, but minus the weapon systems.
The region also has a track record of supporting UAS missions as well as miles of uncrowded airspace, Schram said. Customs and Border Protection flies the Predator drones it uses to patrol the northern border from the Grand Forks airbase.
CBP is an obvious potential customer for the center, Schram said. The agency has had a hard time finding and training pilots to operate its small fleet of drones. However, CBP has not made any commitment to the school yet, he said.
Students will not have at their disposal actual Reapers or Predators, Schram said. The university has several smaller drones that they may be able to fly instead.