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UND teams up to deliver new drone-pilot training standards

New standards supplement written test with practical, real-world drone-flying exam

As small UAS are used by many drone service companies and public safety organizations, the industry is looking for more comprehensive standards in certifying drone operators, or pilots. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is one group working on this issue, and they recently collaborated with UND to offer new certificates to students. UND archival image.

The University of North Dakota’s UAS program is taking on new standards in training students for the unmanned aviation workforce.

In collaboration with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Airborne Public Safety Association, UND now will be able to offer students a new form of certification as they progress through their four-year UAS Operations degree, learning to pilot drones.

With NIST and APSA’s stamp of approval, pilots can show they have had more practical levels of flight training than the Federal Aviation Administration’s baseline level of certification — a regulation known as Part 107. Currently, the FAA requires passage of only a written exam to legally fly small UAS (drones weighing less than 55 pounds).

As UAS Program Director Paul Snyder notes, every other form of traditional flight requires rigorous testing, both written and practical, to fly commercially.

“UND Aerospace has never been an organization that trains to the minimum,” Snyder said. “We want to make sure that when our people leave here, they are going to be the best for the job.

“With that in mind, it makes sense to use NIST to help us to train to a higher standard that is recognized by the industry.”

Turning toward industry

NIST — a nonregulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce — is one of many organizations that has worked on building practical standards for the UAS industry, according to Snyder.

With a lack of further regulation from the FAA, beyond the Part 107 requirements set in 2016, the first place to turn is toward industry and consensus standards, he said.

“That’s where we go to understand the consensus throughout the UAS industry, regardless of regulation,” Snyder said. “It’s important for educators and organizations to be engaged with those standards, so that we’re in the right place to be a voice for change as the industry continues to mature.”

By aligning with NIST’s framework, UND can maintain its place on the leading edge of UAS operations, advancing on work UND has already done to become the first University program recognized by ASTM International’s UAS training standards in 2019.

Similar to ASTM consensus standards, the new NIST-developed certification establishes a level of performance in a scenario-based environment, requiring the operator to plan, coordinate and execute a mission. Once students complete the APSA’s Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilots, which will be integrated into UND’s existing courses, they can pay a small fee to receive their certification through APSA.

At UND, in the Fritz Pollard Jr. Athletic Center, attendees of an NIST Standard Test Methods course learned how to set up the Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilots. With a few items available at a hardware store, proctors can set up a course that evaluates pilots’ ability to maneuver drones and capture specific images nestled in targets. Image courtesy of Paul Snyder.

Evaluating pilots, as well as drones

The connection between UND Aerospace and NIST came through Al Frazier, a senior fellow at Georgetown University and guest researcher at NIST who previously worked at UND as an associate professor. Frazier is part of an interdisciplinary team developing NIST’s standards for UAS.

“NIST recognized the need to step in where the FAA hadn’t created practical standards,” Frazier told UND Today. “Our goal has been to provide drone manufacturers and users a means by which to evaluate small UAS.”

Through the NIST structure, drone service companies can evaluate not only their pilots but aircraft as well. Frazier provided a hypothetical example of a company deciding on a drone model needed for a specific job. Instead of having manufacturers put on their own performances to sell their products, the company can run the drones through the same NIST standard to determine which models perform tasks more proficiently.

The Basic Proficiency Evaluation for Remote Pilots is a practical flight test in which a candidate has to do everything the drone is capable of doing, Frazier said. It involves all manners of flight motion, including multiple pinpoint landings, as well as capturing images nestled in angled targets (typically found in two-gallon buckets). Throughout the exam, a proctor reads tasks to pilots and later evaluates the routine based on time and completed objectives. Candidates need to reach a certain point total to pass.

To train the trainers

But before UND can proctor certifications to students, the trainers themselves must be trained on how to proctor that exam.

Such an event meant for “training the trainers” is exactly what took place on campus last month, shortly before the end of the semester.

Robert Lunnie, assistant professor of aviation, takes a turn flying one of the test lanes at UND’s “training the trainers” event in December. Image courtesy of Paul Snyder.

The 24-hour course covering NIST’s UAS Standard Test Methods was administered by APSA and sponsored by UND. According to Frazier, it is against NIST’s charter to teach its own standards or directly confer certificates, hence the third-party necessary to administer the proctor training.

APSA is a nonprofit representing public safety aviators, such as firefighters, police officers and search-and-rescue workers, among other professions.

“This was an opportunity for UAS operators within these local agencies to come in, understand what NIST’s standards are and learn how to proctor these exams properly,” Snyder said. “Those newly trained proctors can then bring that training back to their agencies in order to teach more working pilots.”

Though constructing and administering the Basic Proficiency Evaluation is a major part of the course, spread across three days, participants in the APSA-led sessions also learned how to run through scenarios more apt for emergency services. At the Fritz Pollard Jr. Athletic Center, APSA and UND hosted members of the Grand Forks Police and Fire departments, North Dakota Highway Patrol, Civil Air Patrol, as well as faculty members from UND, among other public safety organizations from across the region.

“The third day is scenario day, where we take what’s learned in the previous two days with the Basic Proficiency Evaluation and expose candidates to other flight paths,” Frazier explained.

For example, pilots had to work in tandem with a mission coordinator in order to investigate a vehicle that was reported to contain an explosive device. Pilots were tasked with maneuvering the drone to capture images of the license plate, as well as look outside and inside the vehicle to identify threats.

“I was impressed by the professionalism of the training curriculum, how it was laid out and how comprehensive it was,” said Snyder, who observed parts of the scenario training. “It really encompassed many of the skills necessary to effectively use the technology.”

And there is more to come, Snyder added, as UND is already planning a December 2022 event with APSA to deliver a NIST Advanced Standard Test Methods Proctor Certification Course.

Though the recent “train the trainers” effort was geared toward flying UAS in high-stress and emergency situations, UND Assistant Chief UAS Pilot James Moe said the skills learned are relevant anywhere.

Moe, in addition to his position at UND, regularly works with APSA to deliver UAS training for other universities and organizations across the country. Since the December training session at UND, the course has garnered interest from other companies in the area looking to certify their pilots, Moe said.

“Establishing these standards in UND’s curriculum is beneficial for student hiring and makes the overall program more robust,” Moe said. “It’s about practical pilot skills, which are relevant and valuable for all lines of work with UAS. We’ve been making a big push for meeting industry standards, and that’s what NIST is providing.”