By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald
THIEF RIVER FALLS, Minn. — Last week’s announcement that the University of North Dakota and Grand Forks will be one of six test sites to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the nation’s airspace had officials high-flying not only in North Dakota, but in Minnesota as well.
Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls is a partner in UND’s aerospace program. And its technology-based programs are designed for education as well as development in the fast-growing UAS industry.
Besides its long-running aircraft maintenance training program, which expanded two years ago to include UAS aircraft, Northland now offers curriculum to train students to analyze data collected from drones, whether the aircraft is flying in airspace over hostile countries or hovering above buildings or farm fields in the United States.
The school’s one-year imagery analysis certificate is the first of its kind in the nation. It also offers a two-year associate degree in geospatial intelligence analysis.
The UND-Northland aviation partnership actually dates back to 1998, when UND instructors used UND airplanes to provide pilot training to students in Northland’s longstanding aviation maintenance training program.
The Northland UAS program has been developing since 2010, when Northland received a Department of Labor grant to expand into that field.
Since then, the school has been fostering a UAS partnership with UND and industry leaders by building curriculum and the technology to deliver it.
“Nothing we’ve done in the last 10 years has been done unintentionally,” said Curtis Zoller, Northland associate dean of aerospace programs. “We’re developing a classroom that’s going to redefine the student’s education experience.”
Classroom of future
Students will be introduced to some of that technology when they return to school Monday for the start of the spring semester.
Some classes will be held in interactive, audio-visual classrooms specially engineered at three campuses — the main campus in Thief River Falls, the East Grand Forks campus and at the school’s Aerospace Center at Thief River Falls Regional Airport.
The system, which cost a total of about $750,000 for all three locations, allows direct, two-way communication between an instructor at one location and students in all three classrooms. The sound-activated system automatically triggers cameras to focus on the student or teacher who is speaking, regardless of location.
Each classroom also was specifically designed to provide optimum light and sound quality, according to Zoller.
Northland President Anne Temte said the system provides a substantial improvement in quality, which makes for a richer classroom experience.
“I can see expressions on people’s faces. I can read body language,” she said, speaking from a classroom in East Grand Forks to an audience split between the Thief River Falls main campus and the aerospace center. “And sometimes when you have 12 people in a room showing up on a little, tiny television, you can’t do that. So, I do believe it’s going to enhance communication among our sites and among our personnel. Of course, our top priority is going to be instruction, but we’re all going to get used to this by using it for meetings as well.”
Programs and partners
The system could be expanded to other communities as well, but the cost likely would be $150,000 to $200,000 for each one, depending upon the amount of retrofitting that would be necessary.
“The goal, of course, would be to not only make it expand across the aerospace program and other programs, to expand across the East Grand Forks and the Thief River Falls barrier, but also to allow students to be able to (participate) from their own homes, using a laptop or an iPad or any other tablet device that would be capable of joining from there,” Zoller said.
Other schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system are considering similar technology. And some high schools are working with it, too.
“Throughout Minnesota, there have been some grants that have delivered this kind of equipment in high schools in really rural areas, where the students have not been able to come into a college for the post-secondary options program,” Temte said. “I’m thinking particularly of the Itasca area, where they are sharing some language instruction from colleges to high schools. So that’s another area where there may be some expansion in the future as more sites come on.”
Northland officials also have discussed expanding its interactive classroom concept and training possibilities with aerospace partners, such as Northrup Grumman Corp., the anchor tenant of the Grand Sky UAS Park planned at Grand Forks Air Force Base, according to Dan Klug, NCTC chief development officer.
“This would be a great asset to have as part of Grand Sky, to be used to help grow that aerospace education and training, whether it’s for a traditional Northland student or a customized training opportunity with a company like Northrup Grumman or their customers, whether it be domestic or international,” he said.