Mon, Apr 17, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Commercial drone boom needs mechanics

AP, FARGO, North Dakota

A drone flies during a ship-to-shore delivery simulation in Lower Township, New Jersey, on June 22 last year.

Photo: AP

With the number of commercial drones expected to soar into the millions in the next few years, operators whose unmanned aircraft malfunction or crash will be looking for places to get them fixed.

Some repair shops authorized by manufacturers to fix smaller drones are already having trouble keeping up with demand.

For several weeks, a California company had a note posted on its Web site referring specifically to the Phantom drone.

“Temporarily not accepting any new repairs at this time due to high volume. Please check back soon,” it said.

While such waits might be frustrating for operators, it spells opportunity for repair shops keen to diversify and budding drone mechanics who could start lucrative careers repairing commercial drones without having to pay for a four-year college degree.

“I’m trying to hire two experienced drone technicians at US$20 an hour and I can’t find anybody,” New Jersey Drone Academy founder James Barnes said. “This gives kids in urban areas that can’t go to college now a chance to work at a trade and make decent money.”

Northland Community and Technical College in northwestern Minnesota has been teaching unmanned aircraft maintenance for larger military-type drones.

It is expanding its program to include smaller drone repair and school officials are promising a high-paying job after just one or two years.

“The reality is, the people coming out of the trade schools, the technical colleges, places like that, are the people out there getting jobs and they’re getting paid nicely to do it,” said Zack Nicklin, unmanned aircraft instructor at the school in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. “They’re making careers out of this.”

One of Nicklin’s students, Chris Rolfing, said he grew up taking machinery apart, seeing how it worked and putting it back together.

He signed up for drone maintenance and repair after serving four years in the military and hopes his skills can help local farmers.

“I grew up in a farming community and both of my grandpas were farmers so I would like to stay close to the agriculture business,” the 26-year-old said. “This spring I will be working with a few farmers doing some demo flights and getting my name out there to get my business started up.”

In addition to his repair business, Rolfing plans to do his own business doing aerial photography, 3D mapping, and agriculture analysis.

Unmanned aircraft owners basically have three options when their drones need tune-ups or repairs. They can send it back to the manufacturer, send it to a repair shop or fix it themselves.

Most of the smaller shops specialize in hobby grade or low-end commercial grade drones, specific to a few manufacturers. Those drones typically cost a few thousand dollars to buy, and about US$150 to fix, not including parts.

The more expensive commercial drones generally need repair experts, many of whom have backgrounds in manned aviation.

Robotic Skies is building a network of affiliated repair stations around the world. Company CEO Brad Hayden has more than 120 service stations under his umbrella, most of which work on higher-end drones that cost US$10,000 and up.

He said he plans to recruit more shops as needed.

“The industry is always short of avionics technicians. That’s kind of the way it is,” Hayden said. “Our intent is to bring in enough service centers to always meet the demand. We are built for a volume market.”

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