Universities Pool Resources to Help Commercial UAVs Take Flight

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.

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