This article by Mark McAlpine, contributing writer for the Elk Rapids News, features club members Julia and Dorance Amos as well as Bill Donberg helping both Northwestern Michigan College and our local community. Here is the story.

Drone days of summer 

By Mark McAlpine, Contributing Writer 
NMC UAS Program Manager Tony Sauerbrey and Mitchell Emke launch a survey drone.
Photo by Mark McAlpine

Mitchell Emke, a 2021 Elk Rapids High School graduate and resident of Williamsburg, did not plan on a career in the drone industry. He discovered the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Program at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) through a recommendation from a family friend. Originally signed up for their certificate program, Mitchell liked the hands-on nature of the class, upgraded his commitment and is now close to finishing a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in Engineering. He has obtained his FAA Commercial Drone License and is already working in the industry for a local drone service company doing real estate aerial photography. 

Elk Rapids and the former Yuba International airport facility play a key role in the success of the NMC / UAS drone program. Launched in 2010, UAS is a unique and flexible Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved program. The FAA selected NMC as a UAS Collegiate Training Program 2020 – the only designated program in Michigan approved by the FAA. 

NMC has been using the former Yuba airport, a privately owned facility, for their drone flight training since the launch of their UAS program in 2010. At that time, Julia and Dorance Amos along with Julia’s mother Daisy “Toodie” Pollister, owners of the airport, were considering a closure of the facility. Bill Donberg, a flight instructor at the NMC Aviation Department, local Elk Rapids resident and member of the Rotary Club with connections to the families and NMC, saw an opportunity to help both and set up meetings to discuss the use of the airport by NMC.

“NMC was searching for a place for training,” Donberg said. “I knew Julia and Dorance Amos and reached out to them. Julia was excited about the idea and Dorance was interested in the agricultural possibilities using drone technology.” It was a win-win for both parties,” Donberg added. “NMC manages the airport and keeps things cleaned up. The airport space is outside the Traverse City airspace, has everything needed with plenty of room and a great surface. Having the airport space added credibility to the UAS program.”

According to Dorance Amos, the family had a continued interest in supporting the agriculture industry and helping the community. “The family was facing a difficult decision and was planning to shut down [the airport]. Julia and her mother Toodie were always interested in working with schools and helping students. When Bill and NMC reached out, we were interested in the idea. You do not get a chance to do something like this very often,” Dorance said.

From late July through August this year, the airport facility will play a vital role in efforts to train 40 Michigan high school teachers from across the state in commercial drone technology. The High School Teacher program became a reality with a $90,000 FAA workforce development grant. According to Tony Sauerbrey – NMC UAS Program Manager – 40 high school teachers will participate in a three-part program. They will complete a 10-week Remote Pilot Test Prep course online and pass the FAA Remote Pilot Certification, a requirement to fly drones commercially. After issuance of their license, ten teachers each week, starting in late July, will participate in a two-day flight training session at the Yuba Airport. At the completion of the training, and as part of the grant, each school district will receive a drone to use in the development of their own drone technology classes at the high school level. “Our hope,” Sauerbrey said, “by creating interest at the high school level, is to develop an easy pathway for students to NMC and a career in UAS technology. Our goal is more articulation with high schools to develop UAS classes that would make it possible for students to earn NMC credit for those classes.”  

Students fully enrolled in the NMC UAS Associate degree program develop tech and flights skills enabling them to serve an expanding drone industry. Sauerbrey is an eyewitness to that expansion. His career started at NMC in 2006 as Chief Flight Instructor after spending nine years as Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at the University of North Dakota. In 2010, after identifying drone technology as a future growth opportunity in aviation and working out an agreement with the Amos family for the use of the Yuba facility, NMC began offering their first UAS classes. In 2013, NMC introduced a new Engineering Technology Associates Degree with multiple specialties – including UAS. A large community college skilled trades equipment grant followed in 2015 that includes funding allocated to the UAS program, which allowed NMC to expand the drone fleet and training. 

Sauerbrey took a break from NMC and followed drone technology advances to Houston, Texas in 2015 to partner in a new business specializing in oil and gas line drone inspections. That business took off and eventually sold to a larger inspection company in 2018. During that period, the FAA, after a long delay, established flight and licensing regulations for commercial drone use. This final piece of the puzzle functioned as a catalyst for the industry and brought clarity to requirements for commercial drone use training. In 2018, the opportunity to return to Traverse City came up and Sauerbrey returned to NMC to lead the efforts as UAS Program Manager. NMC’s efforts to expand the program were rewarded in 2020 when the FAA selected NMC as an Unmanned Aircraft Systems Collegiate Training Program.

Current NMC participants in the UAS program are seeing expanding drone opportunities in a variety of industries, including aerial photography, real estate, power company inspection, land survey and police surveillance. According to a recent market report, the global commercial drone market is estimated to grow 57% by 2028. The same report estimates that the precision agricultural segment will grow 60% in the same timeframe. The NMC UAS program will continue as a leader in the training students for that growth. Their training experience at the Yuba Airport, FAA support and existing lab equipment, filled with working commercial drones with a price range up to $50,000, will allow it to enjoy a leadership role for years to come. “The next ten years will be very interesting,” Sauerbrey said. “Drones are not a novelty anymore and have cemented themselves as an invaluable tool in many industries and will continue to do so.”