Testing the Skies: Breakthroughs, Collaboration set Flight Plan for Future of UAS
Post Date: Dec 22 2015
By Grand Forks Herald
Bob Becklund doesn't have to go far to see the future of unmanned aircraft.
As executive director of the Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site, he only has to walk down the hall and talk to one of his staff members.
"They're all experts at what they do," he said. "When they have an idea, you're going to listen to them."
The test site, which is operated by the state but exists because of a congressional mandate on the Federal Aviation Administration, is charged with researching how to safely integrate unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
This year, its crews have assisted businesses that want to explore potential uses of unmanned aircraft. These clients include companies in the insurance, railroad, energy and real estate industries and even NASA.
The progress at the test site is just part of advancement seen on several fronts for the unmanned aircraft industry in North Dakota. Major players such as UND and North Dakota State University made strides this year in terms of research, but now have set their focus for 2016.
On the horizon for NDSU is a large-scale agricultural research project aimed at comparing imagery taken by unmanned aircraft from various altitudes while UND intends to create an unmanned aircraft flight training program.
The unmanned flight training program isn't off the ground quite yet. It has a few more hurdles to clear at the federal level before it becomes official, according to UAS Program Director Al Palmer.
In order to conduct flight training for these aircraft, the school must apply for and receive an exemption.
The exemption is granted by the FAA and is most often sought by businesses looking to operate unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes, which is otherwise illegal.
UND's unmanned flight training program would mirror the school's manned flight training, with students starting on simulators before moving on to flying actual aircraft.
Those simulators and other portions of the UAS program are spread miles apart — a problem Palmers said should be fixed next year.
"We're scattered out at Grand Forks Air Force Base, at the international airport and down here on campus," he said. "It's a challenge for us, but once we get Robin Hall, we'll be centrally located, and everything will be in one building."
Construction on Robin Hall continued throughout 2015 and is expected to be completed in July 2016.
Also hoping to secure space in the new building, which the university has been authorized by the state to spend up to $25 million on, is the test site.
Like its current location on the UND campus in Clifford Hall, space in Robin Hall would be state property and therefore rent free for the test site, which is trying to become self sufficient, Becklund said.
The state has invested nearly $7 million in the establishment and operation of the test site. So far, the site has about $1 million in revenues from contracts that have been completed or are set to be, Becklund said. Some of the contracts are part of larger agreements UND and North Dakota State University have with other firms that total about $3 million.
"Right now we're using state funding for this, but of course companies are paying us to do stuff too, so we're already starting to see a return on that investment," Becklund added. "Our end goal is to be self sufficient. ... But it's impossible to predict when that's going to be."
In the meantime, demand for the test site's flight operations services has its director looking to hire additional staff.
The test site has seven active contracts and about 10 more serious inquires from companies. Becklund expects the test site's work to continue past 2017, the year under current law that the test sites in North Dakota and five other states are required to operate until.
"We're building all this infrastructure here and these people and this expertise for the long run," he said. "Regardless of whether they continue the test site program, we will definitely be a long term asset here for the industry and the FAA to use."
Several distinctions bestowed on the test site this year are helping build up its operations and reputation.
The FAA granted its flight crew authorization to fly anywhere in the United States at the altitude of 400 feet and below and the ability to fly up to 1,200 feet anywhere in North Dakota.
Those and future permissions are expected to pave the way for more projects and contracts lined up for 2016.
One big fish Becklund hopes to land is the ability to fly civilian unmanned aircraft without a chase airplane from Grand Forks Air Force Base, which is home to Grand Sky — touted as the nation's first business park for unmanned aircraft systems.
Chase planes are used to monitor unmanned aircraft operating at altitudes where manned aircraft could be encountered.
Grand Sky, which broke ground this year, would be home to tenants looking to access the base's airspace without employing a costly chase plane.
"If we're successful with that, and so far it's looking pretty good, we'll be the only place in the country where you can do that," Becklund said.
While some of the test site's contracts have taken its staff out of state, Becklund said they focus on conducting a majority of the research in North Dakota.
One of its largest research efforts involves collaborating with NDSU. Together, the organizations are pursuing a 2016 research project centered in the area of Hillsboro, N.D.
NDSU researchers partnering with Elbit, an Israeli manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems, will test image capture capabilities for comparison between large and small aircraft near, Ag Machine Systems Specialist John Nowatzki said.
During an eight-week period, pictures of farmland will be captured by a small device at 400 feet and a large unmanned aircraft at altitudes of 1,000, 3,000 and 5,000 feet. Those images will be compared with each other and pictures taken by a satellite.
In addition to comparing imagery, researchers also hope the pictures can be used to estimate crop emergence and yields, detect nutrient deficiencies and count livestock.
Over the past year, similar research has taken place at other NDSU research centers and extension centers.
An economic report from the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts agriculture will be the largest use for unmanned aircraft by 2025.
"We're coming close, but we're not there yet," Nowatzki said.
Testing the Skies: Breakthroughs, Collaboration set Flight Plan for Future of UAS - Grand Forks Herald