TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College’s newly expanded unmanned systems and robotics program this semester attracted more than twice the number of new students than expected.
Fifty new students enrolled in the three areas of unmanned systems — aerial, ground and marine — for a total of 63 students now enrolled in engineering technology, said Ed Bailey, director of NMC’s Technical Division.
The higher than expected enrollment contrasts with the overall count of students at NMC, which is down slightly this year. Still it's good news to NMC officials, who normally see a significant enrollment downturn in times of economic recovery.
A total of 4,727 students enrolled, a 2.5 percent decline from 4,847 students last year. Despite the downturn, tuition revenue increased by 6.6 percent from $6.7 million last year to $7.2 million because of a tuition hike.
Student interest is very high in the aerial and marine robotics fields because that's where the jobs are, Bailey said.
"I think the interest is high because there are great job opportunities, and the salaries range from $60,000 to upwards of six figures depending on where you're willing to travel, and how much time you're willing to put on the job," Bailey said. "On the marine technology side, you can go off on an oil rig for two months, three months, and the whole time get paid for 12- , 14-hour days, seven days a week, which puts you into double and triple time."
The riskier jobs around the world, such as working in the North Channel in Great Britain, also pay high rewards, he said.
NMC made news early this year when it rolled out a new set of degrees in the field of remote-control robotics. The program builds on existing courses and equipment, including NMC’s Aviation Division, which has offered courses in unmanned aerial systems for several years. The Great Lakes Water Studies Institute also uses an underwater remotely operated vehicle (ROV) in its freshwater studies program.
Students can earn an associate’s degree in engineering technology with a specialization in one of seven high-tech fields, including automation & robotics technology; computer technology; electronics; photonics; unmanned aerial systems; marine technology; and unmanned ground vehicles.
Remote control robotics are used in a variety of applications, such as surveying an ocean floor or inspecting a wind turbine. Marine applications are primarily used in the oil industry and associated with environmental monitoring, Bailey said.
The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projects the field will grow by 100,000 jobs over the next 10 years, with 80 percent of the growth expected in agriculture — a perfect fit for our area, Bailey said.