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Kansas Transportation and Higher Ed Kick Off Unmanned Aircraft System Pilot

Kansas State Polytech and KDOT join with the feds to launch an initiative to shape the future of drones.

(TNS) — "What you are going to see today is significant. We're going to be operating under a waiver that allows us to do what most UAS operators don't, which is fly the aircraft at a distance where you cannot see it with the naked eye," Kurt Carraway, Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus Acting UAS executive director, told a crowd Tuesday morning.

And with that, just before 11 a.m., the 7-pound foam aircraft took off at the Knopf farm, just north of Gypsum, kicking off the inaugural operation of the Kansas Department of Transportation's UAS Integration Pilot Program.

State legislators and other elected officials, UAS industry leaders, community members and members of the K-State Polytech aviation team were all in attendance.

Speakers included Carraway, Kansas Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann and U.S. Rep. Ron Estes.

The program, created by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, is a two- to three-year initiative aimed at shaping the future of drones and accelerating safe UAS integration.

"This is a major event for the industry. At the end of the day, there are literally thousands of corporations around the world that want to do what we did today," said Bob Brock, director of aviation and UAS for KDOT. "The significance of the specific event is that we were able to demonstrate flying beyond line of sight under the FAA's oversight (and it) was both safe and far less consequential to the local populous."

KDOT was one of just 10 — out of 149 applicants nationwide — selected to help lead the national UAS program.

Tuesday's Kansas flight was the second to take place under the U.S. DOT's UAS Integration Pilot Program.

Many benefits

Brock said KDOT partnered with 31 businesses, state agencies and universities, including K-State Polytechnic, to represent Kansas.

The flight conducted Tuesday and all future flights will help test the capability and reliability of UAS when it comes to beyond-line-of-sight operations.

Over the next two years, Brock said, Kansas IPP team partners will conduct tests over farms, roads, transmission lines and other infrastructure without invading the safety and privacy of Kansans.

Dennis King, FAA program manager for the Kansas project, said the program will assist the U.S. DOT and FAA with creating new rules to expand safe UAS integration into the National Airspace System while creating new opportunities for Kansas and the UAS industry.

"In order to fly drones, one of the biggest things that you're looking at is how do you do it safely," King said. "Other than just flying it into airspace with all other unmanned aircraft, how do I do that flying beyond visual line of sight, how do I do that flying it at night or over people?"

Value-added project

King said what's awesome about the IPP program "is we are working at an accelerated pace to try to keep up with industry and to help, in partnership, build these rules so that we can all benefit from it. ... Drones are the future."

Brock said the program will help Kansas create new jobs, improve UAS flight safety and advance agriculture.

"One of the primary focus areas for the state of Kansas is increasing our ability to do precision agriculture," he said. "At the end of the day our contribution as KDOT is to work with the technologies in aviation to reduce input cost for farmers and cattle ranchers and potentially increase yield. This is going to be a big value-added proposition to all of our agricultural partners."

Safety and privacy, Brock said, "are foundational blocks" for every citizen that will not be sacrificed "under any circumstances."

Brock said future events under the Kansas IPP, which will include major corporations and feature new technology, will operate under a "crawl, walk, run methodology."

First waiver

In June, K-State Polytechnic became the first university in the nation to receive a waiver from the FAA, which was used Tuesday, to fly unmanned aircraft systems beyond the line of sight.

The university remains the only one to have received the waiver.

Tuesday's flight went as fast as 35 mph and as high as 300 feet, said Spencer Schrader, UAS staff flight instructor pilot at K-State Polytechnic.

Schrader said the beyond-line-of-sight flights, similar to Tuesday's flight, could allow the aircraft to take multiple photos "and stitch all of those together."

Those flights could allow a pilot to stand in one spot and use the aircraft to survey or gather data on a 300- to 400-acre plot or fly miles down a long, linear infrastructure such as a 15-mile transmission line or a railroad.

Schrader said K-State Polytechnic is currently the lead operator for the Kansas Integrated Pilot Program and may assist other partners with their planned flights.

Kurt Barnhart, associate dean of research and engagement at K-State Polytechnic, called the flight "the next evolution of what we've been pushing for for 10 years."

"It's really not going to get where it needs to be until we have true beyond-line-of-sight operations with bigger aircraft and this program pilots that whole initiative forward," he said. "This is the true threshold of the economic utility of this technology. It means for us continued growth for our aviation program. It's where the future is and we're excited to partner with KDOT to make this happen."

©2018 The Salina Journal (Salina, Kan.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.