The UAS Classroom

From technology breakthroughs to new company launches, university UAV work is vast, varied and more valuable than ever before. These schools have proven why UAS industry breakthroughs could happen in the classroom.
By Ann Bailey | January 21, 2016

Unmanned aerial systems newspaper and magazine articles plaster the bulletin board in Al Palmer’s office at the end of the fall semester at the University of North Dakota.

“Every article written about UAS is on the bulletin board,” says Palmer, UND Center for UAS Research, Education and Training director. By the end of the academic year, the UAS stories will be pinned to the bulletin board two or three deep, a testimony to the breadth of UND’s unmanned aircraft systems research and development.

The strength of UND, which offers a bachelor’s degree in unmanned systems, is sense and avoid and pilot training, Palmer says. The university is part of six UAS test sites that are charged by the Federal Aviation Administration with helping integrate UAS into the national air space.

At UND, research also is underway by professors who are studying how the unmanned aircrafts can be integrated into their programs. A UND wildlife biologist, for example, is participating in a research project in northern Manitoba to monitor nesting birds.

Palmer believes that UAS has applications for many other disciplines, including rural health. For example, UAS potentially could deliver anti-venom to a snake bite victim in a remote area or deliver blood to a patient in a rural community, Palmer says.

North Dakota, once referred to as the Silicon Valley of UAS, has caught the attention of not only local print journalists whose stories cover Palmer’s bulletinboard, but also reporters who write for national publications such as the New York Times.

University matters
The stories highlighting UND’s contribution to the UAS industry are mirrored at universities across the U.S. that are conducting a myriad of research projects and training their students for a multiplicity of careers in the industry.

“The sky is the limit on what these aircrafts can do,” says Daniel Mendez, a Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation air worthiness and standardization engineer and 2014 Texas A & M-Corpus Christi mechanical engineering graduate.

“It’s a young industry. It’s very robust.”

Mendez decided to pursue a degree at Texas A &M-Corpus Christi after graduating from Richard King High School in 2009 in Corpus Christi because he enjoyed math and engineering in high school.

“I knew the university here offered that,” Mendez says. What he didn’t know was that an introduction to aerodynamics and performance class would pique his interest in robotics and eventually land him a job with the Lone Star UAS Center of Excellence & Innovation.

Texas A & M-Corpus Christi’s responsibility as a test-site host is to provide the FAA with the data and a better understanding of how the national airspace will be integrated and how that can be safely accomplished says Luis Cifuentes, Texas A & M-Corpus Christi vice president for research, commercialization and outreach. Being able to integrate UAS safely into the air space is key to the economic development of the unmanned air craft systems industry, he said.

Meanwhile, at Texas A & M-Corpus Christi, economic development of the UAS industry is considered important if it is to gain acceptance by the public.
“We are very much interested in the overall outreach of what we do, particularly locally and regionally; not only getting people to understand and get excited, but to allay fears and dispel incorrect information.,” Cifuentes says.

In the Texas A & M-Corpus Christi program, workforce development is also considered to be a major factor in economic development in the UAS industry, he says.

Besides carrying out the duties outlined for test sites, Texas A & M, is involved in a variety of UAS research, including development of a sensor integration system for UAS, which has applications in the oil and gas industry, Cifuentes says. A Texas A & M-Corpus Christi team conducting the research, which is funded by a National Science Foundation grant, is studying how gases can be detected, he says.

Meanwhile, Texas A & M students research includes traditional projects such as search and rescue, disaster mitigation and precision agriculture, he says. Students also are involved in less conventional UAS research that includes using Google Glass to control UAS, studying how UAS can be used in dance performances and how UAS can be used to paint large-scale murals on a wall, he says.

“We are encouraging as much integration, as much of a multi-disciplinary approach as possible,” Cifuentes says. “We are encouraging people to be really imaginative about how they might get involved.”

At Purdue University Polytechnic Institute in West Lafayette, Indiana, students in the UAS program learn how to be UAS pilots, technicians and to program and repair UAS, says, Mike Leasure, associate professor. The university has five full-time students enrolled in its fledgling UAS major and 26 in its minor.

Purdue University Polytechnic’s Institute’s comprehensive UAS operations program, which emphasizes safety and reliability, is helping move the UAS industry forward, Leasure says.

The land grant university also is involved in agricultural research using UAS, Leasure says. A multi-disciplinary team made up of geospacial experts, georeferencing experts and data and computer science experts conduct the research.

The institute received a $6.5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to use UAS to develop a sorghum variety for the biofuels industry, Leasure says. Researchers are operating a hyperspecteral camera to phenotype sorghum.

“Many companies are using multispecteral, Leasure says. “To my knowledge, Purdue flew the first hyperscpeteral.”

Purdue University Polytechnic Institute also is using UAS to evaluate the rate of canopy growth in soybeans.

“The aerial allows us to cover a much larger area quicker,” Leasure says. “And we don’t damage the plants, and if the field is muddy we can still go in.”

Leasure believes that large-scale phenotyping will be underway in the not-too-distant future.

“The obvious next move is to go to larger frames and more diverse environments and do the research in a larger area,” he says

This winter, the institute will add more unmanned aircraft to its fleet, including a custom-built, next generation UAS with a 10-foot wing span that will haul and protect a $70,000 nanocamera, Leasure says.

At Washington State University in Pullman Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems, scientists also have integrated UAS into agricultural research, says Ralph Cavalieri, WSU associate vice president of research.

“Many of the faculty associated with the research center do sensor-related research that is appropriate for agriculture,” Cavalieri says “They have been doing this for a long time.”

Plant breeders initially used satellites for remote sensing, but now are using UAS. For example, plant breeders are operating UAS in their work studying the phoenotypical characteristics of different varietal crosses, Cavalieri explains, noting that plants under stress will exhibit a different specteral image than healthy plants.

A less conventional use of UAS for agricultural research is studying whether UAS can be used to dry cherry tree fruit. If cherries that are nearly ripe stay wet too long after it rains, the fruit will crack and farmers can’t sell it as fresh produce, Cavalieri said.

“We’re using UAS helicopters, relatively large ones from Japan to dry the cherries.”

Wildlife research using UAS also is underway at Washington State University-Pullman, Cavalier says. For example, a wildlife researcher is operating a UAS to monitor pygmy rabbits, a threatened species, he says

At the University of Colorado in Boulder, weather remains at the forefront at the UAS research, says Brian Argrow, CU-Boulder aerospace engineering professor. The university has conducted research ranging from operating UAS to profile the lower atmospheric boundary layer to flying three systems simultaneously into supercell thunderstorms to intercept wind gusts, Argrow says.

While CU-Boulder does not have a specific UAS curriculum, its engineering students can take courses on building airframes and communicating with UAS systems which can lead them to careers in the UAS industry.

For example a former CU-Boulder student who was involved with ad hoc and networking while he was at the university formed Blacksmith Technologies, a company that manufactures autopilots and solutions for communication, command and control for UAS companies, Argrow says, UASUSA is another private company developed from CU-Boulder’s UAS research.

“Those two companies have come directly out of our efforts,” Argrow says. The university, meanwhile, also created Rocky Mountain LLC, a not-for-profit business league that promotes and improves the Colorado aerospace industry, focusing on safe integration of UAS throughout the state for the public’s benefit.

Farther north, Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in Salinas is the first university in the United States to receive approval from the FAA to offer commercial flight training to students and to outside companies, says Kurt Barnhart, associate dean of research at the Kansas State Polytechnic Campus.

“It’s different in that we can conduct training in a specific mission set,” Barnhart says.

“This allows us to develop a similar type of training to what professional pilots do,” adds Kurt Carraway, KSU-Polytechnic Campus acting program manager.

The university offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in UAS and will incorporate the new flight training that was made possible by the approval from the FAA into the existing discipline. Next year, fall semester, students will work their way through multirotor training and multirotor instruction to fixed wing rotor and fixed wing instructor.

Commercial operators, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to train in the field under KSU Polytechnic’s Certificate of Authorization or inside the university’s enclosed unmanned flight facility.

The Polytechnic Campus continues to look for ways to develop the UAS industry, Carraway says.

“We’re really trying to help the FAA determine aircraft and certificate standards and pursuing airman certification and training standards,” he says. “These are areas, we’re really proud of, our core relationship with the FAA.”

Kansas State University Polytechnic is a core member of the FAA’s Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence or the ASSURE program.

Membership in ASSURE has funded research projects helping UAS to develop integration efforts into the national air space, Carraway says. The organization’s 22 members includes Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, University of Alaska-Fairbanks and UND.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University focuses primarily on assisting the FAA with integration of UAS into the national air space, says Richard Heist. He sees that as important work because the number of people operating UAS is exploding.

“You can go to Walmart and buy these things. That’s scary. That’s why the FAA is moving toward registration. They need to be able to trace it back if there’s an accident. We’re heavily involved in that research,” Heist says.

Researchers who work in Embry-Riddles applied research center also are looking at ways to monitor and maintain power lines, treat isolated parts of disease-damaged citrus orchards and monitor hurricanes.

“There is a lot going on in respect to research at Embry-Riddle because that’s what we’re good at,” Heist says.

Besides conducting research with UAS, Embry-Riddle also has bragging rights to the oldest bachelor’s program in unmanned aircraft systems science, he says. Embry Riddle students are embracing the opportunity to operate UAS.

“We have a full-scale airplane that is autonomous here. Everything in the industry isn’t those little things hovering over a stadium taking pictures for ABC,” Heist says. “Students love it.”

Although ERAU has been training its students for jobs in the airline industry for 50 years, “the closest students get to airplanes often is when they get to their internships at Boeing,” Heist says.

The UAS industry is exploding with job possibilities for students, Heist believes.

“What would be a metric for measuring how this area is growing and how valuable students are who come out of universities is that the starting salaries are $70,000 and higher.”

At the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, a UAS test site, the focus, historically, has also been aviation, says Marty Rogers, business director at the university and ASSURE deputy director.

“That’s really how the program has grown,” Rogers says. Meanwhile, University of Alaska-Fairbanks also “embedded” its test site into its UAS program, he says.

“”We minimized our investment, but at the same time expanded our capabilities.” The university UAS program accomplished that by going out and marketing its research, Rogers says.

Research projects under way at UAF focus on the Arctic, he says.

“Whether it is marine mammals, emergency response, wildlife response; infrastructure of all types that exist in the Arctic, offshore and onshore,” Rogers says. In January, two new Sea Hunter UAS systems with fuel-injected engines and 5-meter wingspans will be delivered to the university. The UAS will enable the university to expand its beyond-line-of-sight work for the oil and gas industry, he said.

The massive amount of interest in Arctic research led the university to a decision to partner with an Icelandic company to open an office in Iceland.

“Iceland has set aside a beyond-line-of-site specifically for unmanned aircraft,” Rogers says.  That sharply reduces the amount of time a client has to wait if it wants to conduct beyond-line-of-sight research, he says.

“To go and fly there, for us, is not a six-month process. If a client wants to schedule it, we can schedule it and fly there,” he says.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, also works with members of the private UAS industry to move their commercialization efforts forward, says Craig Woolsey, a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University aerospace and engineering department professor.

The university recently joined the Industry/University Cooperative Research Center program with CU-Boulder and Brigham Young University, Woolsey says. The aim of the IUCRC, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, is to move research from an academic setting into a commercial setting.

The 24 industry members who make up the IUCRC define the research agenda and the academic members carry out the research, Woolsey says.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University also is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Partnership or MAPP and in that role works to assist the FAA with UAS integration into the air space.

Researchers at the university also are engaged in a variety of other research including using UAS imagery to determine agricultural crops health, bridge infrastructure inspections and UAS cyber security, Woolsey says.

While UAS programs are relatively new at many universities across the United States, students at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater have operated remote control aircraft since the late 1990s, says Jamey Jacob, OSU school of mechanical and aerospace engineering and Unmanned Research Institute director.

Students involved in a campus organization designed and built the remote control aircraft and flew them in competition.

“That’s really where we developed our reputation at the undergraduate level,” Jacob says.

“We kind of like to say ‘We did unmanned aircraft before it was cool,’” he says.

One of OSU’s core strengths, he says, is developing platforms. Companies are asking OSU graduate students to build UAS for them.

“One of the things we’re really good at is a rapid development cycle,” Jacob says. “We can go from a clean sheet of paper to a rather large unmanned aircraft in months.”

Whether it’s research and academic work or assisting the FAA with air space integration, universities across the U.S. are dedicated and persistent in their efforts to move the UAS industry forward.

“The reason North Dakota is a leader didn’t just happen, it was a lot of work,” the University of North Dakota's Palmer. A quote Palmer read in a book sums up what he thinks it took for UND and the state of North Dakota to gain recognition as a UAS leader.

“If you have vision and you have action, you can change the world,” Palmer says. “That’s what I think happened in North Dakota.”

And, judging by the success borne of their dedication and effort, change is happening in universities across the United States. The universities, with the financial and moral support of their state leaders, are launching UAS to a higher level and advancing the careers of thousands of students.

“I love what I do here,” says Mendez, the Lone Star Test air worthiness and standardization engineer.” I wake up every morning in a good mood. It’s a very fun career to be in.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Staff Writer, UAS Magazine
[email protected]