Land grants take on larger role in drone research

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, May 14, 2015- A new center for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) research led by several land grant universities and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will help ensure that “this nation continues to lead when it comes to aviation and aerospace,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., during a press conference today.

The Unmanned Aerial Systems Center of Excellence (UAS COE) is a consortium of universities that will research and develop technologies and policies for the use of UAS, or drones, in the U.S. Just last week, the FAA selected Mississippi State University to operate the center with a team dubbed the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE).

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Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the COE is “about creating American jobs, whether it's about making crops grow better, protecting our troops or responding to humanitarian crises…UAS is the wave of the future.”

Congress appropriated $5 million for the five-year agreement with the COE, which will be matched one-for-one by the team members.

In addition to Mississippi State University, the other team members include: Drexel University; Embry Riddle Aeronautical University; Kansas State University; Kansas University; Montana State University; New Mexico State University; North Carolina State University; Oregon State University; University of Alabama, Huntsville; University of Alaska, Fairbanks; University of North Dakota; and Wichita State University.

Congress mandated that the FAA establish the COE under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. FAA first solicited university teams to apply for the center last August.

James Poss, a retired Air Force major general and ASSURE UAS executive director, said the center has some “some of the best agriculture schools on the planet, that also happen to be the best engineering schools.”

 

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FAA chose six test sites for UAS research last year. The agency expects the center's flight testing to occur at one or more of the existing test sites. COE should be able to begin research by September and be fully operational by January, according to FAA.

Initially, the center's research areas will include: detect and avoid technology; low-altitude operations safety; control and communications; spectrum management; human factors; compatibility with air traffic control operations; and training and certification of UAS pilots and other crewmembers, in addition to other areas.

Republican congressman Kevin Cramer noted that “precision agriculture is the greatest commercial opportunity for these systems,” especially in his state of North Dakota.

Hoeven, along with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., introduced legislation this week that would set interim operation guidelines for small commercial drones in lieu of FAA's finalization of proposed rules regulating the technology. The agency proposed its regulations in February, but it could be several years before they are finalized.

“There is so much potential that can be unlocked if we lay the proper framework to support innovation in unmanned aircraft systems,” Booker said in a press release. “But right now, the U.S. is falling behind other countries because we lack rules for the safe operation of commercial UAS technology.

The legislation intends to set interim safety rules, help speed up the process for commercial users seeking to fly small unmanned aircraft and preserve the FAA's rulemaking authority while providing the agency with the flexibility to make changes in the final rule as necessary.

The senators estimate the UAS industry could produce 100,000 U.S. jobs and contribute more than $80 billion to the economy. According to some estimates, 80 percent of commercial drone use would occur in the agricultural sector.

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