FAA gives Kansas university UAS research access to entire state

By Patrick C. Miller | February 26, 2015

Kansas State University Salina has something that no other unmanned aerial systems (UAS) research program in the country has—the Federal Aviation Administration’s approval to conduct flights over the entire state in which it operates.

The university recently received three certificates of authorization (COA) that allow its UAS program to conduct research anywhere in the state on public or private property with landowner permission.

Kurt Carraway, KSU Salina's UAS flight operations manager, said each COA covers a specific aircraft type.

“We have a couple of rotor winged and then a fixed wing,” he explained. “We did one for each aircraft type rather than three different COAs. Each one can fly anywhere in Kansas as long as it falls under the criterion with the COA.”

KSU Salina will use the COAs primarily to conduct research on UAS operating requirements for remote sensing in agriculture and emergency response. According to Carraway, the ability to conduct operations anywhere in the state without the need to apply for a COA is tremendously beneficial to precision ag research.

“There are a series of different research projects that we’re working on, a lot of them pertaining to agriculture in particular,” Carraway said. “As an example, over at Kansas State in Manhattan, we’re working with folks who are interested in different invasive species of insects.”

Rather than creating an insect infestation in a field to study under the research project, KSU Salina can fly its UAS over naturally occurring infestations.

“When it comes to agriculture, a lot of the impacts that we’re doing research on are natural impacts—drought, flooding, insect infestations, diseases—things that occur naturally,” Carraway said. “If we have the opportunity to go where those natural occurrences happen, then we’re going to get a better variety of data then if we have to introduce it artificially.”

The certificates are effective for two years, giving the university's UAS program a flexibility and immediacy in collecting research data, specifically in agriculture remote sensing when conditions can quickly change.

“It allows us to be a little bit more flexible because the 60-day-wait option just isn’t very practical,” Carraway said. “You can’t wait for a flood, submit a COA and then—60 days later—go fly it and get the same fidelity of data that you’d get as if you flew the next day.”

Under the COAs, flight missions are limited to 700 feet above ground level; they must be conducted during the day and in visual line-of-sight; missions cannot operate over heavily trafficked roads or in an open-air assembly of people; and they must have ground or flight observers at all times.

KSU Salina requires the pilot in command to have completed FAA private pilot ground instruction and passed the written examination within the preceding 24 calendar months. Additionally, the UAS operators must hold a private pilot certificate if flying an unmanned aircraft above 400 feet, and all pilots must hold a current second-class FAA medical certificate.

KSU Salina is one of the first universities in the nation to offer a bachelor's degree in UAS. Since its start in 2011, the program has nearly doubled its enrollment every year.

Caraway said that with more research opportunities, the university can offer additional application-based experiences to UAS students, as well as students majoring in engineering, engineering technology, agriculture and other areas

“There’s so much to be done, and when it comes to commercial applications, you can’t really come up with any type of industry that could not be impacted in a good way by UAS,” Carraway said. “It will be exciting to get to the point where people can try out those concepts and determine whether they’re feasible or not.”


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