Who Will Maintain Civilian Drones?

By Scott Spangler on June 14th, 2012

Unless they are directly involved, either as a daily job or when something’s broken, maintenance isn’t a top-of-mind topic for most aviators. So it took me awhile to wonder who’s going to maintain and fix the burgeoning number of civilian unmanned aircraft systems, how will this demand affect those invested in flying the old fashioned way?

The drone fleet is a diverse lot, ranging in size equal to a Boeing 737 to smaller than a hobbyist’s RC flying model. According to the FAA, approximately 50 US companies, universities, and government agencies are developing and producing 155 designs. And it has issued roughly a hundred certificates of authorization that enable specific operators to fly in the National Airspace System.

Most drone news is devoted to the regs and requirements that safely separate them from populated aircraft. UAS operators start with AC 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards. Maintenance requirements, who must what and when has been missing from this news. Rooting around the FAA website led me to UAS Interim Operational Approval Guidance that, if I may summarize, says inspection and maintenance requirements are similar to manned aircraft. Learning who was authorized to do this work was more elusive.  The interim guidance said, “In the future, UAS Maintenance Technician certification will parallel existing standards for manned aviation.”

NCATT, the National Center for Aerospace & Transportation Technologies, has been working on these standards since 2010. In perusing its 52-page UAS Maintenance Standard, it seems that airframe & powerplant mechanics and avionics technicians will make an easy transition. The wild card is the essential third member of the team, who will maintain the ground control stations, which live in computerland, the domain of information technology.

This opportunity for new jobs is also a challenge for aviation education and the legacy maintenance and avionics shops that cater to people-carrying flying machines. First, schools, whether they be tech schools, community college programs, or university aviation degrees must integrate IT with its electronics and mechanical curriculums. Then legacy shops will have to compete for technicians who will have many more opportunities.

And aviation as a whole will still face the challenge of attracting newcomers to these hands-on fields. Yes, the future is going to be interesting. Given the industry’s success at recruiting new pilots, a profession and pastime much sexier than turning a wrench, becoming an under-panel contortionist, or driving a keyboard, the future should be interesting. –Scott Spangler

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