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UND touts new training for drone pilots

GRAND FORKS -- The University of North Dakota announced Thursday a new program to train pilots of the Predator unmanned aircraft using a full-size simulator.

It's another step that puts the university and the state "at the forefront and cutting edge" of research and development in unmanned aircraft systems, "the fastest-growing component in aviation," Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley said at the announcement ceremony on campus.

Wrigley is chairman of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Authority, which is working, among other things, to have the state named one of the federal government's six test sites for unmanned aircraft.

UND's new training program, still in its testing phase, has been underway for a couple of weeks with six students who will finish a short course by Thanksgiving. Next semester, 32 students are expected.

University officials have worked for years to start a training center equipped with a full-size simulator that looks and feels like the inside of a Predator control module. They got that in 2011 using $2.7 million in state funds to buy the simulator, the university said.

Now they've got a curriculum to go with it.

Money for the program comes from a three-year $5.5 million grant that UND received in 2011 from the Air Force Research Laboratory. The military's goal is to find the most efficient method to train pilots for unmanned aircraft, the university said.

Part of the funding goes toward paying students $2,000 each to participate, as a way to develop the curriculum.

According to Al Palmer, director of UND's Center for UAS Research, Education and Training, the UND program builds on Air Force training curriculums, adding new wrinkles not available yet anywhere in such a format.

However, he said, in line with UND's civilian mission, there is no "weaponization" button on the new Predator simulator.

Palmer said he expects the grant to get re-upped next year with little problem.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration has not yet sketched out how unmanned aircraft will be used in the private sector, such as in mapping farm fields, monitoring natural resources and pipelines and power lines, he said UND's training program will ensure it's ready to provide pilots and other professionals as the industry gears up.