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Partnerships on Rise Between Drone Makers and Universities 


By Valerie Insinna 


As commercial demand for unmanned aircraft grows, manufacturers and universities are increasingly joining forces on efforts to train pilots and develop new technologies.

During the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in May, Northrop Grumman and the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks announced a cooperative agreement in which the school will use SandShark unmanned aerial systems for training and research.

Northrop Grumman will provide the university with two aircraft and a ground station under the three-year agreement, said Ken Kilmurray, the company’s program manager.

The SandShark was designed to improve pilot proficiency, particularly difficult maneuvers such as takeoffs and landings, he said. “It can also be used to determine the aptitude of potential pilots, a screening tool, and decrease the failure rate in training. Those combined save a lot of money across the life of the program.”

The university has yet to decide how SandShark will initially be deployed, but it is considering using it in two programs, said Al Palmer, director of the university’s center for unmanned aerial systems training, research and education and a retired Air Force brigadier general. The first, the limited deployment of cooperative aircraft project, is a research effort to create a sense-and-avoid system that incorporates automatic dependent surveillance broadcast, or ADS-B, transceivers.

“We’ve had that program going for almost three years now, but we plan on doing a second phase of that. If it’s approved, we will use this airplane in some form or fashion,” he said.
The university is also considering outfitting the SandShark with advanced avionics that are closer to that of manned airplanes, Palmer said.

In order to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace, “we have to make them look like an airplane, act like an airplane, fly like any other aircraft. So a more up-to-date avionics that has been miniaturized and can fit on an aircraft this size would make it easier,” he explained.

North Dakota in 2013 was selected as one of the UAS test sites that will help the Federal Aviation Administration determine rules for allowing unmanned aircraft to fly in national airspace.

“Even if it’s [only] pilot training, sometimes helping to identify what the pilot standards are … is a next step to help the FAA,” said Mike Corcoran, deputy director of the university’s UAS center of excellence. Using the SandShark will help tackle such issues, he said. “There’s a pretty good mix of projects that are right on top of our desks now that will slowly be integrated and implemented in the field.”

The University of North Dakota is not the only academic institution partnering with industry. Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, recently teamed up with Altavian Inc., a Gainesville, Florida-based UAS company. The entities developed a curriculum based on Altavian’s Nova Block III system, including training on how to operate the UAS and education on FAA regulations. Officials at the AUVSI conference announced that the first batch of students completed the course. 

Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman

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