Alumni in the Field: A Conversation with Paul Lechner (PC ’15) about the UAS Industry

Paul Lechner graduated from Embry-Riddle Prescott in 2015 and is immersed in the world of unmanned aircraft systems at Insitu.

Insitu employee and Prescott alumnus Paul Lechner holds a drone.

Q. Why Unmanned Aircraft?

A. I chose the Unmanned Aircraft industry because it’s booming. I saw friends from the military making great advancements within this industry. I have a curious nature which made me want to learn more about it. When I started at Embry-Riddle Prescott, I took advantage of their Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program to satisfy that curiosity. The more classes I took, the more I learned about the industry as a whole and the more I wanted to get involved with this industry. I interned with Insitu, Inc. in the summer of 2014. Today I work there in the Standards & Evaluation department. The company is a pioneering leader in the design, development, production and operation of high-performance UAS.

Insitu employee and Prescott alumnus repairs a drone.

Q. What is taking center-stage in the UAS industry right now?

A. There is a broad conversation happening right now about policy and regulation for flying UAS in the national airspace and I’m excited to see where that goes in the U.S. There are frequent and far-reaching innovations for how to use UAS in almost every field. For example, in November we went to New Mexico to demo for a company that is looking at using UAS to inspect railroad tracks. Because of our high-quality sensors and optics and the speed of our UAV, the company could see greater efficiency and savings. It’s not what most people think a UAS might be used for but that’s the innovation happening right now.

Q. What opportunities are available?

A. A career in UAS is an excellent choice. There are many different paths that can land you in a UAS company. In larger companies, engineers are one of the most hired positions. The industry as a whole is young with much effort being put into research and design. However, they are unlikely to ever fly professionally. If you want to fly UAS, there is currently no well-defined path to achieve that. Good general recommendations are to have, at a minimum, a Private Pilot’s License (PPL) and sometimes even your Instructor rating or Commercial rating. Depending on the company and platform, knowledge of remote control (RC) aircraft may also be beneficial. If your sights are on working for a defense contractor, obtaining a security clearance would help greatly. The most important things to remember about getting a security clearance are to keep your criminal record clean and your finances under control. The biggest factor in what opportunities are available will depend on what you want to do and what type of company you want to work for.

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Q:  Could you tell us a little about where you’re working now and how you got there?

I work for Insitu, Inc. in the Standards and Evaluation department. I work with the company’s top-level pilots and maintenance experts. As a team, we determine operational policies and procedures and how to measure success in these areas. Every day I’m surrounded by the most experienced and knowledgeable field personnel who solve problems and set best practices.

As a company, Insuti is a great place to work. Its headquarters is located in Bingen, WA., in the Columbia River Gorge. The company culture is relaxed while focused. Jeans and polo shirts are commonplace and company policies allow employees to bring their dogs to work with them, with reasonable limitations.

After graduation, I was hired at Embry-Riddle as an adjunct instructor in the UAS program to teach two classes. One class was UAS robotics, where students learned to build and program robots to perform specific functions. Their systems knowledge is greatly beneficial once in the field. The other class I taught was the UAS Simulation Lab. We used three pieces of software to give students experience in a variety of UAS roles. The first was RealFlight, a RC simulator to allow students to learn on quadcopters and small fixed-wing aircraft without the dangers of hands-on flying. Another was Mission Planner. It’s an open-source software package that is used by many startups and smaller commercial companies. The last piece of software packages was ICOMC2. It is top-level software which allows control for multiple unmanned systems by one operator. It’s the same software that Insitu uses in the field but it’s not commercially available yet. Embry-Riddle was able to obtain the software due to its close relationship with Insitu and Boeing. Those students now have broad training in the wide spectrum of UAS, giving them an advantage in the job market.

Q: What advice do you have for those considering the UAS industry?

The industry is growing at an alarming rate. There are opportunities on the horizon that have yet to be realized.

The UAS industry is a very diverse industry. Aircraft can range from a 10-pound, 15-inch wide quadcopter with a camera to a 15,000-pound RQ-4 Global Hawk with a wingspan of 116 feet. UAS companies can range from a couple people such as Swift Radioplanes based out of Prescott to companies like Lockheed-Martin that employ over 100,000 people. Figuring out what to do within the industry is just as difficult as choosing what you want your major to be. Research the companies out there, understand their culture, and figure out what positions might interest you and that you would fit into.

Q: Final thoughts?

A. I am a two-tour Army veteran and had taken classes from multiple universities. When I made it to Embry-Riddle, I was astounded by the personal attention afforded to me because of the small classes and the one-on-one attention from my faculty. I believe it is a huge factor of my success and helped contribute to graduating with honors. The quality of the school is outstanding.

Here at Insitu, there are many ERAU grads from all three campuses. The overall company’s composition is approximately 10% ERAU grads. The most notable graduate currently in the company is Ryan Hartman, the President and CEO. Insitu participates in the Prescott campus’ career fair each year so I’m looking forward to visiting during one of these times.

Paul Lechner graduated in Spring 2015 with a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies with minors in Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Security and Intelligence, and Humanities.