Northland Community and Technical College has been awarded a $7 million National Science Foundation grant to form the National Center for Autonomous Technologies at NCTC’s Thief River Falls campus. The grant is the largest in Northland’s history.

Jonathan Beck, principal investigator NCAT and a Northland unmanned aerial systems instructor, said Northland and the center have a “remarkable opportunity” to be leading the educational development of autonomous technologies.

“It’s a really amazing opportunity to be able to receive an award like this from the National Science Foundation to stand up the National Center for Autonomous Technologies,” he said. “Autonomous technology is one of those technologies that I think is going to have significant impact and will probably be one of the most disruptive technologies that we’ll have over the next decade.”

The NCAT will join the National Science Foundation’s large circle of Advanced Technological Education Centers located throughout the country. The center will launch this month, and Northland will be bringing on additional full-time positions to support the center. New staff will be hired over the next several months, Beck said.

Autonomous technology is already woven into the fabric of everyday life, ranging from autonomous guided agricultural equipment to household vacuums that independently navigate the living room, Northland noted in a press release.

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“Advanced vehicle technology is here. The NCAT will create the infrastructure to develop skilled technicians who will build the workforce of today and tomorrow to meet industry demands,” Christopher Hadfield, director of the Minnesota State Transportation Center for Excellence, said in a statement. “In two years, 60% of all new vehicles will have autonomous technology components.”

Northland has been providing education in unmanned systems for almost a decade. Beck said just in the past five years there has been a tremendous recognition for the impact unmanned aircraft systems can have for many industries. Drone technology has become more and more innovative during that time as well, he said.

The National Center for Autonomous Technologies will focus on air, land and sea autonomous technologies, such as unmanned aircraft systems, connected automated vehicles and unmanned underwater vehicles.

Northland will partner with St. Cloud State University, Marine Advanced Technology Education Inspiration for Innovation, the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology, the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence and the Minnesota State Transportation Center of Excellence to educate and promote autonomous technologies throughout the United States.

Curtis Zoller, Northland associate dean of aerospace and agriculture, said the center has four main tenents: “to educate the educators, to promote student involvement, engage the workforce and community and to act as an education hub for autonomous technology across the country.”

The NCAT will construct professional development workshops for educators and industry professionals and promote and provide support to encourage more engagement in STEM and autonomous technologies in secondary and post-secondary education, particularly in underserved areas, the news release stated. In addition, the NCAT aims to involve workforce and community stakeholders, to help identify and solve everyday issues with autonomous technology.

“I’m also extremely proud of our aerospace team for demonstrating their expertise in autonomous technology, as well as the tremendous effort they put into preparing for this grant,” Northland President Dennis Bona said in a statement. “Receiving this grant will further Northland’s national reputation for aerospace education and establish us as a leader in this field of study.”