Universities Pool Resources to Help Commercial UAVs Take Flight

By Dan Parsons
A group of research universities is pooling its expertise in aeronautical engineering and related sciences in hopes of becoming a one-stop-shop for the study of unmanned commercial aviation.
The Federal Aviation Administration is rapidly approaching its congressionally mandated 2015 deadline to integrate unmanned aircraft into the national air space. It has already missed a deadline to name six test sites at various places across the country where unmanned aircraft can be flown without heavy restrictions. Those sites are scheduled to be announced by the end of the calendar year.
A parallel FAA effort is the establishment of an unmanned aerial systems center of excellence where engineers will study UAS technology and its commercial uses.
Five universities with expertise in various scientific fields related to the technology have joined forces in hopes the FAA will bestow them with that title. They are North Carolina State University, Mississippi State, Kansas State, the University of Alaska and the University of North Dakota.
While the 2015 milestone is still two years in the future, there remain a multitude of issues that must be ironed out before unmanned and manned aircraft can safely coexist in U.S. skies, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, now director of strategic initiatives at Mississippi State University.
“If we’ve been flying them in the military for thousands of hours in southwest Asia, why do we need to research UASs to fly them in the national air space?” Poss asked during a Oct. 3 webinar on safely integrating unmanned systems into the national air space. “The difference, first and foremost is one of scale.”
The U.S. military does have extensive experience flying remotely piloted aircraft in war zones, but in restricted airspace that is uncontested and nearly free from civilian manned aircraft. When the FAA gives the go ahead to fly in U.S. air space, thousands of unmanned systems are expected to take off into skies already jam packed with commercial aircraft, Poss said.
Developing certification standards for commercial unmanned systems presents myriad challenges. Without a pilot, the aircraft don’t need cockpits and can therefore be of nearly any size. They now range from the size of a hummingbird to the size of a small jetliner. Regulations must be written for all classes of vehicles. Similar safety regulations must be drawn up for materials used solely in UAS construction and propulsion systems, like hydrogen engines or electric batteries, not used in manned aircraft, Poss said.
“They are going to be made out of everything under the sun — composites, foams,” he said. “When you’re dealing with the disparity of designs and sizes of the aircraft because you don’t have to put a pilot in it, it creates challenges for certifying the aircraft. We are going to have to tell the FAA how to certify that these propulsion systems are safe.”
Collision avoidance is one of the biggest concerns all stakeholders have in flying unmanned aircraft alongside commercial aircraft carrying people. Pilots can look out of their cockpits to gain situational awareness and make decisions based on their perceptions. Flying robots do not yet have that capability.
Mike Corcoran, UAS course manager at the University of North Dakota, said safety is the primary driving force of everyone studying the technology ahead of the 2015 FAA deadline.
“We have to develop new algorithms that help UASs make a decision like a pilot would onboard the aircraft,” he said. “We also need safe and efficient terminal procedures because it’s not just about what happens in the air. What happens on the ground is just as important. All of us are advocating for the safety of the activity.”
Mark Blanks, UAS program Manager at Kansas State University, is studying the ways humans and remotely piloted aircraft interact. The range of operators for commercial drones is vast, including highly trained military pilots and farmers, alike. Creating certification criteria for such a wide gulf of abilities and circumstances will be a challenge, he said.
Ideally, the UAS software will understand human weaknesses and be able to detect and correct for them, he said. Patrolling 1,000 miles of oil pipeline, for instance, can be a boring job. When something like a leak occurs, an inattentive remote operator could miss it. Onboard sensors should be able to alert the pilot in such an event.
“Is the system compatible with human strengths and weaknesses? Can it detect and correct for human errors?” Blanks asked. “There are difficulties in non-line-of-sight scenarios because of delays in communication between the pilot and the aircraft. The pilot can’t just look out the window and fly by the seat of his pants. He can’t hear the engine or smell something burning.”
“There’s tremendous variety of configurations and operating systems. There needs to be more standardization in education,” Blanks said. “There needs to be more standardization of systems.”
Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Center at North Carolina State University’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education, said situational awareness issues extend to pilots of manned aircraft who will share the skies with drones. Once they are capable of sensing and avoiding manned aircraft, pilots that would traditionally communicate with the operator of another aircraft must understand how the drone will react in shared airspace, he said.
Gregory W. Walker, director of the University of Alaska’s unmanned aircraft program, is studying the proliferation of commercial and civil UAS applications.
“A lot of this work will be driven by industry,” Walker said. “What we have to look at is where this tech will go … and what does it do and what are the unique requirements that generates.”
There are some basic questions to ask of any potential UAS application. That unmanned systems are the hottest thing on the market does not necessarily make them the safest, most affordable or most efficient tool for a given job, he warned. There is no reason to use one if a camera on a pole will do just as fine or better.
“There are some application that a UAS is the only option,” because the objective is too hazardous, remote or would require too much endurance for manned aircraft, he said. “Safety driven applications are the ones that are going to bubble to the top. They are going to take off first.”
The aircraft are also uniquely capable of flying the same course at the same altitude and speed repeatedly, a feat that is difficult if not impossible in manned aircraft. That attribute is useful in mapping or pipeline inspection missions. The aircraft can also be built to be less disturbing than large manned vehicles, an advantage in photographing or surveying wildlife, Walker said.
Cost effectiveness is the bottom line of every potential application, he said. Every five years, the platforms and associated technology is dropping an order of magnitude in price, he said. But as the cost of systems comes down, the resources needed to process the wealth of data they provide increases.
“In the civilian world, it's going to be about delivering the goods, getting the job done in the safest and most cost-effective manner,” Walker said.

Topics: Aviation, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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