Com­mer­cial drone boom opens door for me­chan­ics

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - DAVE KOLPACK

FARGO, N.D. - 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 al­ready are hav­ing trou­ble keep­ing up with de­mand. For sev­eral weeks, a Cal­i­for­nia com­pany had a note posted on its web­site re­fer­ring specif­i­cally to the Phan­tom drone: “Tem­po­rar­ily not ac­cept­ing any new re­pairs at this time due to high vol­ume. Please check back soon.” The mes­sage was re­cently re­moved.

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 fouryear col­lege de­gree.

“I’m try­ing to hire two ex­pe­ri­enced drone tech­ni­cians at $20 an hour and I can’t find any­body,” said James Barnes, who founded the New Jersey Drone Academy. “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 will 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 start 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 cur­rently 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 $150 to fix, not in­clud­ing parts.

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

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

Thomas Swoyer Jr., the head of the na­tion’s first drone busi­ness park, Grand Sky, is look­ing at cre­at­ing a re­pair de­pot at the North Dakota park for medium and large un­manned planes. The only place to fix large un­manned air­craft now is on mil­i­tary bases and as more of them en­ter the mar­ket, Swoyer said they are go­ing to “need a place to get retro­fit­ted, up­graded and re­paired.”

Barnes has an idea to turn used food ven­dor trucks into por­ta­ble drone re­pair sta­tions.

“I’m not sure we’re quite at the point where you would have them like your ba­sic auto re­pair shop, with one on ev­ery cor­ner,” Nick­lin said. “I think one day we will def­i­nitely be there.”

MEL EVANS/AP

With the num­ber of com­mer­cial drones ex­pected to soar into the mil­lions in the next few years, it spells an op­por­tu­nity for bud­ding drone me­chan­ics.

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