Big Bend takes off: Unmanned aerial systems programs gains accreditation

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Cheryl Schweizer/Columbia Basin Herald Rafael Villalobos operates a rotocopter used in the Big Bend Community College unmanned aerial systems program. The UAS program received accreditation last week.

MOSES LAKE — Big Bend Community College has been offering unmanned aerial systems classes since fall 2016, but starting in January students can receive an Associate of Applied Science degree in the program.

The college received notice last week that the program has received accreditation by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Big Bend also received accreditation for a “certificate of achievement” in its mechatronics program.

Accreditation means students taking those classes will qualify to receive financial aid for them, said program director Pat Ford. And training in both unmanned aerial systems and mechatronics will open up opportunities in a growing number of jobs, he added.

Unmanned aerial systems are what they sound like, and actually, versions of them are available in the toy and hobby aisle. Their applications, however, go way beyond flying around the neighborhood.

The BBCC program includes fixed-wing craft as well as rotorcraft, and teaches system programming and troubleshooting as well as flight operations. The mechatronics program is required to receive a UAS management degree. But the possible applications for mechatronics are more than aviation, said instructor Gary Baker.

It’s not just that technology has made it possible to fly a drone while sitting in a chair. Baker said technology has allowed students to afford the tools they need to learn mechatronics.

“We’re teaching about microprocessors and microcontrollers as it relates to robotics,” Baker said. Those are crucial when flying an unmanned aerial vehicle, but the technology is applied throughout modern manufacturing and business, Baker said. And he said he expects the use, and the application, to keep expanding.

The accessibility of the technology means students have access to advanced systems at a very affordable price, Baker said. During the program students learn to, among other things, build their own 3D printers.

“They’re not left with a book and some memories, they’re left with some hardware,” Baker said. Students get the theory, and then build their own systems. When students graduate “they’re not dependent on the school anymore. They have this equipment, and they’re ready to rock and roll.”

Aviation is only the start of the career possibilities, Ford said. Most modern manufacturers use micro systems; cars have them, they’re used on most modern assembly lines, “we’re using microprocessors on sprinkler systems. They’re everywhere.”

Program assistant Laura Goodell said a friend of hers, a real estate agent, took the course and now does all the aerial photography for her office. “And we haven’t touched on the applications in agriculture,” Baker said.

The field is wide open. “We have at least one retiree in our program now,” Ford said. The program has Running Start students, people working toward engineering degrees, people retraining for new careers.

Jim Leland is one of those people in retraining. “I recognized that this is an emerging technology,” he said. He was laid off from his job at REC and had to find something else. “In talking about what I wanted to do, this just jumped out.”

Kate Carey is the retiree; she was laid off when she got to 65 years of age, but wasn’t ready to retire just yet. At the urging of a friend she moved to Ephrata and started looking around for something new. “What an opportunity,” she said.

People who want more information about the program can contact the college admissions office, 509-793-2061, or visit

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at

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