ATE’s National Center for Autonomous Technologies (NCAT) and the Exciting World of Land, Air, and Sea Unmanned Vehicle Technology

By George Lorenzo – Published June 22, 2021 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

Northland Community & Technical College is not an ordinary small college. It sets itself apart from the rest of the country as home to the nation’s first Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance program and first Geospatial Analysis AAS degree program (see its full list of aerospace program offerings). Northland’s Thief River Falls campus is also home to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program’s  National Center for Autonomous Technologies (NCAT), the first autonomous technologies center in the ATE arsenal (currently ATE has 352 active projects and 26 active centers – see recent Workforce Monitor article).

Thief River Falls, Minnesota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota are located in Northern Minnesota about 50 miles apart from each other. Combined they have a population of about 17,000 people.  According to the Best Places website, Northern Minnesota has low crime and cost of living rates compared to national averages. It’s also one of the coldest regions in the country with significant snowfall blanketing the region over seven months each year. Both Thief River Falls and East Grand Forks are home to a Northland Community & Technical College (Northland) campus with a combined population of about 3,220 students. 

Not Your Everyday Rural Community College
Northland is not an ordinary small college. It sets itself apart from the rest of the country as home to the nation’s first Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance program and first Geospatial Analysis AAS degree program (see its full list of aerospace program offerings). Northland’s Thief River Falls campus is also home to the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program’s  National Center for Autonomous Technologies (NCAT), the first autonomous technologies center in the ATE arsenal (currently ATE has 352 active projects and 26 active centers – see recent Workforce Monitor article). 

Workforce Monitor communicated via email and phone with Jonathan Beck, NCAT director and principal investigator, to learn more about how this high-tech and futuristic National ATE Center helps to create meaningful curricula (and more) that lead to extraordinary jobs for students in a fascinating industry that builds and maintains autonomous vehicles that traverse in new ways over land, in the air, and under the sea. 

Playing an Important Role in the Future of Unmanned Vehicles
As noted in the ATE awards abstract, autonomous technologies are revolutionary with “critical implications for the national economy, as well as national safety and security. . . These autonomous vehicles will have tremendous impact on the quality of human life across the nation, from rural to urban communities, as well on understanding of agriculture, the biosphere, and sustaining life in the oceans.”

“NCAT is crafting, adapting, and implementing educational resources to help two-year college faculty and other educators meet workforce demands while increasing the quality and diversity of technicians,” Beck writes. 

The NCAT Center at Northland was awarded a $7 million estimated five-year grant from NSF in June 2019. The NCAT team was formed through partnerships with St. Cloud State University (SCSU) in St. Cloud, MN; the Marine Advanced Technology Education for Inspiration and Innovation Center (MATE II) in Monterey, CA; the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology (CAAT) in Warren, MI; the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GeoTech) in Louisville, Kentucky; and the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence in Rosemount, MN. 

“NCAT is a group of passionate people who see an exciting future and want to enable people to participate and experience its full potential,” Beck explains. “We do this by expanding educational resources and providing learning opportunities for educational leaders and their students who are the future workforce.” 

New Roles and Mentorships
Among several advanced projects taking place within NCAT is a recently entered leadership role with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Unmanned Aircraft Systems Collegiate Training Initiative (UAS-CTI),  “a new program designed for universities, colleges, and technical schools by the FAA to recognize institutions that prepare students for careers in UAS or drones.” NCAT Co-Principal Investigator Zackery Nicklin currently serves as co-chair for UAS-CTI, which over the past year has reached more than 74 members organizations across 37 states, primarily at 2-year colleges.  

“We have an amazing network through the UAS-CTI that is helping to bring folks together who already have existing programs,” says Beck, “but we are also looking at those schools that want to develop programs.” Working as mentors, for example, NCAT is also currently working with aspiring principal investigators in the automotive space at five community colleges that will be submitting grant applications this coming fall. “We facilitate meetings with existing leadership at CAAT and the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence, and with some of the other great leaders that exist in the community tor work with aspiring PIs who would like to enhance their automotive programs to include connected and automated vehicles and advanced driver assist systems.”

Additional Projects and Continuous Resource Development
Overall, NCAT has a good number of additional projects underway as well as a good number of valuable resources it produces for the autonomous technology community on a national scale.  For starters, the Center is pretty much involved in numerous events, including STEM camps and competitions, educator workshops, professional development opportunities, and conferences, of which many are open to the public. In addition, NCAT hosts an enormous resources hub “for evidence-based research on the knowledge and skills needed for students to succeed in the autonomous technology technical workforce.” Within that hub, for instance, is a helpful “Starting a Drone Program,” that “covers drone laws and regulations, curriculum for both secondary and post-secondary programs, funding resources, student competitions, and more.” There’s also a community forum section on the NCAT website that provides “a single place for professionals, educators, and students in the AT [autonomous technology] industry to ask questions, share best practices, and collaborate.”  

How Autonomous Technologies are Widespread
NCAT’s outreach and collaborative efforts with other ATE projects includes a relatively new partnership with Central Lakes College in Brainerd, MN and AgCentric, a Minnesota State Agricultural Center of Excellence.  This particular ATE project is called “Education for Technical Applications in Agriculture,” a $584,613 grant that started in July 2020. The project will help educate “high school students in technologies used in modern farming equipment and operations. These technologies include geospatial technologies, robotics, electronics, sensors, and computer controls. The agricultural equipment industry has a significant shortage of qualified technicians trained to manufacture, use, and maintain modern equipment.”

“We’ve been working together [with the Central Lakes College and AgCentric] for many years on how to apply unmanned aircraft systems and drone technology to agriculture,” says Beck. “We’re looking at what you can do with remote sensing technologies to monitor the farm fields and develop GPS maps to create prescriptions that can then be transferred into farm machinery to go out and spot spray applications or have modified practices across the field.”

Beck adds that in agriculture, as in the automobile, aircraft, and marine industries, NCAT is witnessing the increased use of sensors, more data transfer applications, and more advanced computer and navigation systems. “You start to see similar themes as far as the technology, and therein the skills that technicians need to develop and support the future work. A lot of those themes come out for the skills that students need to be prepared for the workforce.” 

Subscribe to the Workforce Monitor eNewsletter to receive weekly briefs on Credentials and the Future of Work.