The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently approved six locations for drone research, including three universities. While drones — or, more accurately, unmanned aircraft systems — are typically associated with the military or with Amazon.com, their uses range from guiding ships to preventing oil spills.
Here is a look at the universities and the research they will focus on.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
With an average of just 1.26 people per square mile, Alaska is prime territory for drone research. The unmanned aircraft — which, according to the Anchorage Daily News, look more like a “smoke detector with wings and legs” than like a plane — have helped fuel tankers navigate the icy waters of the Bering Sea and can cover rugged terrain that humans simply cannot risk during the cold winters. The paper also reported on the new testing initiative:
The Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration at the University of Alaska Fairbanks will oversee the work, which includes test sites in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon. Center founder and director Greg Walker said the Alaska test sites will include work in the Interior on how to integrate drones in and around airports and at Prudhoe Bay, on how to safely integrate the technology into an industrial environment. He said the center was working with Oregon and Hawaii on what officials there want to do with their sites.
The proposal involves test sites near Pendleton, Tillamook and in central Oregon, Lt. Col. Alan Gronewold, an Oregon National Guard officer, told The Oregonian.
Walker said his team in Alaska has been far ahead of most of the rest of the country in studying how drone technology can be used for civilian activities. It has been researching the viability of use of drones for things like oil spill response, wildlife surveys, highway construction and fisheries management, he said.
Researchers at Virginia Tech are well aware of the negative connotations linked to the word drone, so the devices are called unmanned aerial systems in order to avoid any association with war or the military. Virginia Tech’s research focuses on agricultural development and environmental protection. PilotOnline.com elaborates:
Drones aren’t only prowling the Middle East to try and incinerate terrorists. They fly over such American communities as the New River Valley.
Virginia Tech possesses six drones that it uses as limited-performance research aircraft. Engineering faculty and students on the ground control the aircraft with a remote and permit autonomous flight.
In addition to its work with robots and unmanned ground vehicles, Tech experiments with pilotless aircraft both to improve the technology of the platform and develop specific applications.
Improving the study of agricultural disease and the assessment and mapping of special environments, such as forests and explosion sites, are major project drivers. The work engages students and faculty, brings research dollars to the university and could lead to the creation of businesses, said Kevin Kochersberger, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tech and lead faculty member on drone work.
Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi
The Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center of Excellence and Innovation was founded just a few months ago in an effort to position the university for its bid in the FAA’s test-site designations. Although their work will touch on homeland security, their location in the coastal city of Corpus Christi will afford them the ability to use drones to research implications for the maritime industry, including oil spills, according to The Eagle:
Texas A&M has access to 6,000 square miles of approved airspace near Corpus Christi and submitted the only proposal from Texas. A&M-Corpus Christi partnered with TEES, San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute, the Camber Corp., American Aerospace Advisors Inc. and faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas Tech. A&M-Corpus Christi in October unveiled its unmanned aerial vehicle command and control center in anticipation of the designation.
Check out the FAA’s unmanned aircraft systems page to learn more about the program.