College leads region into drone industry

TRAVERSE CITY — This fall NMC celebrates the ten-year anniversary of its Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program, a foresighted curricular addition that has helped diversify northern Michigan’s economy.

In 2010, UAS, also known as drones, were chiefly a military tool. The FAA barred commercial use, and wouldn’t establish regulations for a commercial license until 2016. But Tony Sauerbrey, then NMC’s chief flight instructor, and others in the college’s traditional manned Aviation program spied opportunity ahead.

“We started looking at the future of aviation, all this drone technology coming along,” said Sauerbrey, now NMC UAS program manager. “It was a little ahead of its time.”

Three classes in 2010 grew into a degree with a UAS speciality by 2013. Today, drones are used to inspect crop health and infrastructure integrity, photograph and sell real estate, conduct land surveys and monitor everything from shoreline erosion to invasive species. Drone package delivery is in development.

With NMC’s significant lead in training time and experience, UAS students have a decided edge in the industry with nearly 200,000 license holders nationwide. In northwest Michigan, the industry is growing to occupy a larger niche.

“NMC is the epicenter of all of the robotic and drone companies in the area, with an emphasis on aerial applications,” said Christian Smith, president of Interactive Aerial, a Traverse City company founded by four NMC alumni.

Interactive Aerial is also the 2020 winner of the Emerging Business award sponsored by Traverse Connect, the region’s economic development organization. President and CEO Warren Call said the company exemplifies the organization's desire to diversify the economy away from traditional employers like tourism/hospitality and agriculture.

“Our mission is to grow family-sustaining careers,” Call said. “The best way to do that is to develop and grow sectors that are technical, high-skill, scientific.”

NMC will continue to play a pivotal role as the industry matures. Locating the program in Engineering Technology, where students learn to build and repair the units, as well as to process and analyze the many different kinds of data generated, is key. In addition, students are taught safe operating practices, airspace, weather, regulations, aerodynamics, and even aeronautical decision making. Hands-on training is conducted on land in Yuba donated by college supporters Dorance and Julia Amos. Sauerbrey says that proximity was instrumental to the UAS program’s success. “For us to have access to airspace that close, that really allowed for the program to develop,” Sauerbrey said.

“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.”

NMC UAS program milestones

2010 : First UAS classes offered; Amos family offers Yuba property as a training facility.

2013: NMC introduces Engineering Technology associate’s degree with seven specialties including UAS. Enrollment in all specialties is double expectations.

2015: NMC receives $2 million Community College Skilled Trades Equipment grant. $405,000 is allocated for the UAS program, allowing for the expansion of the drone fleet.

2016: FAA establishes regulations for commercial drone licenses, a catalyst for the beginning of an industry.

2017: NMC partners with Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology to train MSU students on the use of drones in agriculture. 80+ students have since enrolled.


  • NMC partners with Unmanned Systems Institute, an organization that conducts additional industry safety certifications. Earning these will help students gain employment.
  • Interactive Aerial, a Traverse City manufacturing and service company focused on building drones and robotic solutions founded by four NMC alumni, wins the inaugural Emerging Business Award from Traverse Connect.
  • FAA selects NMC for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems-Collegiate Training Program . As the only school selected in Michigan, NMC will help set industry training standards.

Read more about the program, courses, instructors and career opportunities at


Release date: September 17, 2020

For more information:

Tony Sauerbrey
UAS program manager
(231) 995-2925


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