Drones, a technology once unknown to many, are making headlines again as companies such as Google and Amazon attempt to sharpen their competitive edge.
Universities, however, are also playing a critical role in the their introduction to modern society for civilian use.
In December, the Federal Aviation Administration announced six test sites aimed to conduct research vital to integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the nation’s airspace, according to a FAA press release. Of the six, three were universities – the University of Alaska, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Virginia Tech.
This August, the FAA announced that Virginia Tech’s program was ready to conduct research – beginning the incorporation of academia into the industry as the FAA develops UAS regulations.
Craig Woolsey, associate professor in aerospace and ocean engineering at Virginia Tech, has been working with UAS for the past seven years.
“I think that the role that we’ve [academia] already been playing is to help develop the technology that will ensure that these systems can address important commercial needs and do it safely,” Woolsey says.
The FAA first authorized the use of unmanned aircraft systems, in national airspace in 1990. In order to do so, those wishing to fly an unmanned aircraft (UA) as a public entity must file for a certificate of authorization or waiver to fly their UAS. So far, these aircrafts have been used for marine wildlife surveys in the arctic as well as search and rescue, according to John Coggin, chief engineer for Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP).
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced last December that the company is also working on a drone delivery program that would get products to customers in 30 minutes. These commercial uses, however, need to be evaluated by the FAA for aviation safety.
“They’re (FAA) under a lot of pressure to change these rules and that pressure is coming from Congress, which is under pressure from manufacturers,” Woolsey says.
At each test site, clients can demonstrate their concept for further research and collect data detailing the precision of its navigational instruments for the FAA. The data is then used by the agency to develop safety regulations for UAS operations.
The sites are helping universities, like the University of Maryland who don’t have the FAA certificate, to test their vehicles.
UMD is a member of the MAAP therefore they are partnered with Virginia Tech and Rutgers University for research purposes. MAAP also works with academia, government, economic development organizations, research parks and a variety of other industries.
“The idea of the test site is that you don’t only have the test site to fly, but you also have the crew and training,” says Sean Humbert, director of the Autonomous Vehicle Laboratory at the University of Maryland.
For students at Virginia Tech, the test site has also opened the opportunity to expand on research involving the capabilities of UAS, according to Coggin.
Chris Kevorkian, 24, a Virginia Tech graduate student in aerospace engineering, is focusing his thesis on FAA regulations. The test site allows him to see the process first hand as those regulations develop.
“I can’t and won’t say that I’m writing FAA regulations, but I’m writing what I think should be in them,” Kevorkian says. “It puts me in close proximity to know more about what’s going on.”
While not directly involved with the site, Virginia Tech graduate student Mark Palframan, 26, who has been actively involved in UAS research, sees the test site playing a critical role in the future.
“It’s going to revolutionize the industry as we know it. I think an essential step is to have these test sites in place to make sure everything is certified and providing service to the community,” Palframan says.
Similarly, Humbert sees students playing a critical role as research into UAS progresses.
“Students are basically going to be building the algorithms and the technology for all the different challenges that exist. The companies, on the industry side, are going to be involved in taking those results and maturing and commercializing the technology,” Humbert says.
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