What Makes a Good UAS/Drone Operations Technician?

June 26, 2019

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Despite the “tremendous opportunities for growth in employment associated with commercial activities of UAS,” with the FAA projecting the need for 350,0000 remote pilots in five years, it remains unclear what, specifically, makes a good drone operations technician or a quality drone training program. The skills needed seem to vary dependent upon who you ask — although, no matter who you ask, there appear to be a set of core skills that every aspiring drone operator should have. With the understanding that a fundamental set of skills are required for a drone operations technician, the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GeoTech Center) and the Unmanned Aircraft System Operations Technician Program (UASTEP) conducted a Developing a Curriculum analysis of the Drone Operation Technician occupation on March 8-9 to determine exactly what those skills included.

What is a DACUM?

Developing a Curriculum is a research methodology and planning tool that was invented at Ohio State University in 1976. The facilitator of the DACUM engages 5-12 industry professionals (also known as expert workers) in a focus group setting in order to capture the major duties, tasks, knowledge, skills, traits, tools, and related information for a specific occupation. The information from the participants is usually presented in the form of a graphical chart, which subsequently can be used to guide the development of directly relevant curriculum.

Key Findings

The DACUM panel, co-hosted by the GeoTech Center and the UASTEP, took place at Palomar College in North County San Diego. It consisted of 12 participants representing fields such as law enforcement, local government, construction and inspection, surveying and mapping, engineering, and aircraft operation.

Given the emerging nature of the UAS/drone industry, one of the panel’s key tasks was to decide on the name of the occupation to be analyzed. While names such as Drone Technician or Drone Operator were suggested, the panel ultimately agreed on Drone Operations Technician. The occupation that this panel wanted to focus upon were end-users who utilize a drone for specific applications (e.g. mapping, inspection), rather than workers who build or repair drones (which may be implied by the name Drone Technician). The occupation in our discussion went beyond simply operating or flying a drone (which may be implied by the name Drone Operator); we wanted to focus on operators who could also perform basic maintenance on the aircraft, as well as basic processing and analysis of drone data. Consequently, the panel settled on the occupation name, Drone Operations Technician, in order to highlight the different aspects of this emerging field.

Over the course of the two-day DACUM meeting, six major duties were defined by expert workers as the primary responsibilities of a UAS/Drone Operations Technician. They include:

  1. Plan the UAS operation
  2. Prepare for the UAS operation
  3. Perform the UAS flights
  4. Perform UAS post-flight procedures
  5. Maintain the UAS
  6. Maintain professional proficiency

Within each major duty is a series of tasks that detail what needs to be done in order to fulfill that particular duty. For example, tasks such as identify mission objectives, identify mission accuracy needs, interpret airspace, plan flight route, and many more fell under the duty, “Plan the UAS operation.” As another example, conduct post-flight inspection, perform QA/QC on data, and post-process data are among some of the tasks that fell under the duty, “Perform UAS post-flight procedures.” To see the complete DACUM chart with all of the identified duties and tasks, please visit: http://bit.ly/uasdacum.

Additionally, future trends, as well as crucial qualifications for the occupation such as worker behaviors, general knowledge and skills, and tools/equipment were also highlighted by the DACUM participants. Predictably, safety and reliability were two of the frequently mentioned worker behaviors, while legal regulations concerning airspace, telecommunication, and privacy were three of the most heavily emphasized general knowledge areas. To see all of the future trends, worker behaviors, general knowledge and skills, and tools/equipment that were mentioned, please see the full DACUM chart.

Implications for Education and Industry

While similar DACUMs of UAS-related occupations have been performed by a few colleges and universities in the country, the focus of those DACUMs were different from ours. For example, some of them focused on UAS maintenance (as opposed to operations) while others focused on the UAS/Drone Operations Technician occupation in a different geographical context. It is our hope that the findings from the DACUM panel at Palomar College will contribute additional insights for educators and organizations who wish to develop a quality drone training program. We are also hopeful that companies, both private and public, that hire drone operators will recognize the educational institutions that utilize the DACUM to develop their programs. Given the rapidly changing nature of UAS technologies and the growth forecasted for this field, it is important to replicate the DACUM analysis in different geographical contexts to see if the duties and tasks for this occupation vary by region, and to do so on a regular basis to ensure that up-to-date feedback from industry professionals guides the development and refinement of drone-related curriculum.

Work reported in this article are supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant ATE #1700552, 1700496, 1644409, 1304591. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


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