Drone research has been ramping up in workshops and universities around the country for more than a decade, but it’s the scientists at six test sites designated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who will pave the way for a new future in aviation. The test sites are the University of Alaska, the state of Nevada, New York’s Griffiss International Airport, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Just as the Wright brothers changed the world with the invention of manned flight, these are the pioneers who will propel unmanned aircraft into the skies and alter the course of history.

In November 2013, the FAA released a road map report that recognized the untapped value of drones and also outlined the obstacles to integrating them into the National Airspace System (NAS). Unmanned aircraft were never designed or intended to meet the same rigorous standards as traditional aircraft, so there are a lot of technical and logistical barriers that prevent the FAA from permitting their use in the NAS if they want to sleep well at night. There’s a lot of work to be done before a Boeing 747 full of passengers eastbound for Chicago crosses paths with an unmanned airplane seeding clouds over a ski resort in Colorado, but that day will soon come. The six drone test sites, which were announced at the end of 2013, have until September 2015 to find solutions that will allow drones to weave seamlessly into the national airspace.

Like a crack team of bank robbers planning a heist, each test site brings different resources to the project. Nevada was a shoo-in with its clear skies, huge amount of restricted airspace, and history of military research. The University of North Dakota has one of the largest civilian flight training schools in the world and is the only continental test site located in a temperate climate zone. Researchers in Alaska have been involved with drone research for 13 years and their partnerships with institutions in Oregon and Hawaii offer a geographically diverse testing area.

Applications

Ro Bailey is the deputy director for the Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a retired Air Force brigadier general. Her test site will help develop safety standards for drone systems and run test flights in extremely high altitudes and high speeds over water. But the public should first understand why they’re doing all this, Bailey said – this technology will change the world.

“There are so very many beneficial uses of unmanned aircraft systems that have nothing to do with people looking in windows,” she said.

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A big piece of the FAA’s push to integrate drones into the NAS is to put an end to the battle between legislators, advocacy groups and drone advocates. Drones can save lives, help put out fires and assist in rescuing lost people, but the red tape limiting drone use by first responders has made such stories rare. The 19 firefighters who died in a blaze outside Phoenix in June “probably” would have been spared with the help of drone intelligence, Bailey said.

“We have mapped the borders of wildfires, which provides better information to the incident commander for deployment of firefighters the next day. We could use [unmanned systems] to assist with monitoring rivers that are at risk of flooding and provide better information to emergency managers in real time. We’ve used them for infrastructure assessment, in cases where putting manned aircraft in that place was too dangerous,” she said, mentioning a case where drones were used to survey an oil company’s active flare stack.

“We can do volumetric measurements far more accurately and more quickly for potential avalanches or how much material has been taken out of a gravel pit. We can do precision mapping for archaeological digs, and in many cases be able to give them such detailed instructions that they can go straight to more promising locations to begin the digs. We can locate polar bear dens so you can keep people away from those dens,” she said. When the imagery comes back for Stellar sea lion counts, she said, the team can always tell whether the images were captured by a drone or by a manned helicopter, because when it’s a manned helicopter, the animals are all either staring at the camera or diving into the water, but they don’t notice the drones at all.

Drone research allows scientists to be less invasive, she said. Researchers in Alaska are now developing a whale Breathalyzer drone that flies through a whale’s spout, and analyzes the bacteria collected to determine the health of the whale.

Drones are also used to study volcanoes to learn more about how their ash interacts with aircraft and where it’s safe for manned aircraft to fly.

Bailey also described how drones are used in research to help ships navigate dangerous, icy waters. In one instance, 250 miles north of Alaska's northern shore, drones were flown at 1,800 feet, dropping small buoys into the water that collected temperature data from nine meters underwater and then wirelessly transmitted that data back to the drones.

“There’s not a manned aircraft in the world that would do that for safety reasons,” she said. There’s no replacement for unmanned aircraft when it comes to that kind of work, Bailey added, and that kind of work could prevent a ship from sinking someday.

Safety

While the FAA wants drones in the air, it has also made it clear that compromising existing aviation safety standards is not an option. One of the ways Alaska will facilitate the harmonious integration of drones into the airspace is by helping to develop the drone type certificate process. Type certificates for traditional aircraft are the proof that an aircraft design has been approved by an authority like the FAA, so when someone buys an aircraft, there’s no question as to whether it’s safe, assuming it’s current on maintenance. Drones don’t have FAA-approved designs and most people probably wouldn’t feel comfortable flying if they knew they were sharing their air with a drone someone built in their garage. It would be the air equivalent of a pedestrian wandering around on the freeway.

All three test sites Government Technology interviewed named “sense and avoid” functionality as one of the most pressing areas of research. One of the biggest problems with putting drones in the air is that there is today no consistent way for an aircraft without a person on it to obey the rules of the sky as currently written. But the FAA has stated it will not change existing “see and avoid” rules to accommodate drones, so researchers will need to get inventive so drones can follow the rules.

Linking and sense and avoid systems are two areas of research North Dakota will help develop. The Northern Plains Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site is led by Bob Becklund, a colonel with the North Dakota National Guard and former commander of the 119th Fighter Wing.

“Links have gotta be assured and reliable, which means they gotta be secure from hacking, encrypted, redundant, reliable, all that kind of stuff,” Becklund explained. “That’s quite a challenge. Or in the event a link gets unreliable or there’s a component failure, which of course can happen and the airplane loses its link, then it has to have onboard systems that it can recover itself safely and without hurting anybody on the ground, autonomously in this example.” Air traffic control (ATC) needs to be aware of what a drone is doing at all times, just as with any aircraft, so if something goes wrong such as losing the link with the ground, ATC can then direct other aircraft away from that area, Becklund said.

Safety research is a huge priority for the North Dakota site, but the staff hope that drone research won’t just minimize safety impacts in 2015 when drones begin launching, but that their discoveries will contribute to making all of aviation safer. “As far as what we proposed for the test site, that covers the whole spectrum, everything from pilot training standards, which is what the University of North Dakota (UND) specializes in, certification in pilot training and evaluation standards for air crew, the aircraft and ground station and air worthiness (type) certification.”

UND offers undergraduate degrees in unmanned aircraft systems operations and it’s that industry and culture of aviation and unmanned aircraft that likely led the FAA to select them as one of the test sites, Becklund said. The university’s engineering school also leads research on nanoscale electronics, which is connected to many of the size-weight-power engineering problems faced by drone researchers, Becklund pointed out.

"This region can really offer the FAA and this nation and the world, for that matter, an expertise pool and airspace that’s unencumbered by other aircraft density, a ground population that’s nice and low," Becklund explained. "It’s a perfect place to do flying with new technologies.”

There are a few potential drone applications that Becklund likes. The movie industry will be able to save money renting helicopters if they want aerial shots, real estate developers can easily and cheaply get aerial photos of properties, energy companies will have a cost-effective solution to look for breaks in their pipelines or power lines, and auto racing events could be enhanced for fans by assigning each car a drone with a camera, Becklund suggested.

In Nevada, the Desert Research Institute (DRI) has already begun promoting their own brand of drone innovation, as they look for new ways to increase snowpack in Lake Tahoe ski resorts. Lake Tahoe today relies on cloud seeding towers that introduce silver iodide crystals into the atmosphere, increasing regional rain and snowfall by an estimated 10 percent. In January, DRI put a cloud seeding drone on display at Heavenly Village in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., to promote what their drones might someday offer the region.

Nevada was a natural choice for one of the FAA’s test sites. The state has about 320 flying days per year, thanks to limited cloud cover and 10 times more restricted airspace than all the other states combined, said Tom Wilczek, defense and aerospace industry liaison at the Nevada Governor's Office of Economic Development. The huge amount of airspace they can use for testing and the existing drone research and industry experts in Nevada would have made it seem strange if they weren't selected, Wilczek said.

“This is its birthplace,” he said. “The industry came from here and it came here because of the DoD applications. I’d say the whole unmanned systems industry is kind of our birthright. It was a matter of pride.”

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas and the University of Nevada, Reno were both quick to offer their research and development to the project, Wilczek said, and they received 100 percent political support from all levels.

The wide open airspace Nevada offers will allow researchers to test things they might not be able to test in other areas, Wilczek said, like various clime rates and angles of descent. The FAA has stated that Nevada will concentrate its efforts on developing drone standards and operations, operator standards, certification requirements, and air traffic control procedures. The state has a wealth of experts in all areas of drone manufacture and research to help.

Some applicants that wanted to be FAA test sites may have talked about creating a local economy around drone manufacture and research, Wilczek said, but the FAA doesn’t have time for that. The FAA chose the places that already have an industry in place, because they want drones now.

Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com