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Drone Maintenance Technician

Aviation Job of the Future?

By Jennifer Caron
Source: FAA Safety Briefing

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let’s take a trip back in time — Kitty Hawk — when the Wright Brothers first took flight, and the “third man,” Charles “Charlie” Taylor, became the first powered aircraft mechanic in history. Just imagine you’re a witness — a bicycle mechanic like Charlie was — watching on the sidelines in awe, as the manned aircraft takes off into the sky. Back then, would you be thinking Charlie’s a genius? An innovator? Or a “nut job?!?” I know if it were me, I would be thinking — “job of the future!”

Flash forward to 2017 — and drones (aka UAS) are the new aircraft, unmanned, sweeping the horizon. Imagine now in real time — you’re an AMT, watching in amazement as drones become increasingly popular.

Are YOU the next Charlie Taylor — for drones?

Background

Whether you’re flying for fun or for money, the excitement and awe of unpacking a drone is very similar. Fresh out of the box, the shiny new drone is packed with all the bells and whistles needed to take flight. There are assembly instructions, start-up directions, and a few troubleshooting tips. But, in most cases, one important thing is missing — how to maintain it, and how to fix it when it breaks.

Chapter 7 of FAA AC-107-2, sUAS Maintenance and Inspection, provides guidance for UAS operations https://go.usa.gov/xXBzZ. A helpful preflight inspection checklist is included to ensure the aircraft is in a condition for safe operation.

However, the maintenance for small UAS is up to the manufacturer. AC-107-2 states that all manufacturer scheduled maintenance instructions should be followed. There is no 14 CFR part 43 requirement for UAS maintenance, prescriptive or otherwise.

There are a couple of reasons for this situation. First, part 107, the small UAS rule for commercial use, is a performance-based rule, it is not a prescriptive rule that specifies what actions need to be done, and in what manner. Second, a UAS is not a certificated aircraft. It does not have type design requirements.

Because drone technology is evolving quickly, the FAA recognized that prescribing a certificated requirement on drones would diminish the agency’s adaptability to create an environment where emerging technology can be safely and rapidly introduced.

Is There a Need?

As drones become more and more of “the” thing to fly these days, and with drone sales soaring each year, who’s gonna maintain or repair these remotely-piloted aircraft?

I’m not talking about hobby, dime-a-dozen drones that are inexpensive, and easily replaced with a trip to the electronics store. “As you go further down in cost, it’s almost not worth it to do the maintenance or get it repaired,” explains Cyrus Roohi, Management and Program Analyst in the FAA’s UAS Integration Office. “You can just go and get another one.”

“On smaller drones, repair involves circuit board work. Unless you know how to solder a new motor in, for example, you’re sending it back to the manufacturer to change out whatever is wrong on the board,” says Roohi. That’s the reason why most manufacturers do not include maintenance or repair manuals.

The Need Exists

If we’re talking about the “Hawker 4000s” of the drone world — drones that start at $80,000 and up — that’s where the need arises for maintenance and repair. Take, for example, drones used by the entertainment industry, sports stadiums, government, and law enforcement. These drones, still within the weight limitations of part 107, have intricate avionics, airframes and powerplants, software networks, GPS systems, and pricey cameras attached. The demand is growing. Thanks to the part 107 rule for commercial use, the general public is purchasing these top-of-the-line drones for business pursuits in real estate, photography, pipeline and rail inspections, security, and more.

Unless you have deep pockets, it’s not advisable to just fly and toss these high-end drones when something breaks or stops working. Many upscale drones do come with full, highly detailed maintenance manuals including step-by-step instructions, and photo guidance. “But most operators do not have the skill set to perform these types of repairs or maintenance functions,” observes Roohi.

In the majority of cases, operators themselves cause the need for repair. Generally, the operator is not fully familiar with the UAS platform, its capabilities, and how all of its systems function. For example, drones can fly in different modes, such as fully automatic, manual, or altitude hold. “Most operators fly their drones in one mode only, and they don’t know which mode to switch to in order to recover the aircraft from an emergency,” Roohi explains.

More often than not, this leads to crashes and incidents, and to a need for UAS repair. When these high-end commercial drones become inoperative, the business owner is motivated by finances to get the aircraft up and running quickly.

Qualifications Needed

Predictably, there will be a need for qualified technicians who understand the details of aviation, and how a computer network runs, to service these aircraft. The military already employs maintenance technicians for its unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), and the forecast is growing for technicians to maintain and repair the high-end UAS that operate under part 107.

“These top-of-the-line drones have intricate systems, airframes, and avionics that need to be taken apart and put together in a certain way,” explains Roohi. He specifies that drone maintenance and repair require not just mechanical skills, but also an IT background, especially for drones that operate on a computer network. Technicians need to understand how a network operates, and how it communicates with ground control stations as well.

Roohi also points out that high-end drones are running onboard flight recorders. “A UAS technician could need to remove the memory card, read the telemetry, process it on a computer, plot charts depicting what the operator commanded the aircraft to do versus what the aircraft did, to diagnose and resolve the repair issue,” Roohi explains. He notes that a drone technician needs to be computer and software savvy.

Job Growth and Future Potential

The job potential and growth is real, and most believe the UAS industry will grow exponentially. Just consider companies that look to use drones for package delivery. Theoretically, they will need thousands of UAS to meet delivery deadlines not only in the U.S., but around the world.

Even for the smaller, cheaper UAS, “Mom and Pop” drone repair shops could spring up, just like the now nearly defunct TV repair shops, popular back in the day.

The possibilities are vast. As more and more companies identify and create the need for UAS, the need for UAS technicians will flourish as well.

I ask again – are YOU the next Charlie Taylor for drones?

Jennifer Caron is an assistant editor for FAA Safety Briefing. She is a certified technical writer-editor, and is currently pursuing a Sport Pilot Certificate.