by Jon Beck
We live in exciting times with amazing possibilities in the aerospace industry. With new innovations every day, the expanding field is evolving at a rapid pace. Being a part of the aerospace industry and involved with UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) technology leads to many intriguing discussions that stretch the imagination. Often technological advances bring challenges, sometimes met with skepticism that must be addressed with education to understand the technology and the benefits it can provide to improve lives.
Henry Ford once made the statement, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” but he saw a different answer that led to a totally new industry. Today, we need people who have a vision for the next big step.
The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) have some great programs for students to learn about all aspects of the aerospace industry. Through the MnSCU Transportation Center of Excellence (COE), consortium members have been working to strengthen relationships across colleges and high schools in the region. Over the next year, you will see articles in Midwest Flyer Magazine from aviation instructors across Minnesota uncovering pathways to aviation education, leading students to lifelong, fulfilling careers in these STEAM disciplines. (STEAM is an acronym our partners at Farnsworth Aerospace K-8 and Johnson High School in St. Paul, Minnesota have adopted as they added Aerospace to STEM in their K-12 curriculum).
Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) are one innovation on which the media has reported extensively in recent years. Known by many terms, commonly “drones” in the media, this new field is creating some exciting possibilities for future technicians. They have become a great way to inspire young minds into an emerging STEAM field.
Imaginations are running wild at the potential these systems bring as illustrated by Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos announcing Amazon’s intent to use drones from their distribution centers to deliver packages, 5 pounds or less, to customers within 30 minutes of placing an order.
Similarly, the University of Cincinnati began to explore the idea of turning UAS into an extension of delivery trucks. They are working on a research project that would allow for UAS to be deployed from the delivery truck, delivering small packages, while regular service drops off the larger packages. I believe when companies like Amazon make these types of bold announcements, it provides positive incentive to develop new technologies, as well as inspire the imagination of the next generation of innovators.
I think back to a few months ago when Buzz Aldrin spoke at the “GO BOLDLY” event in St Paul, hosted by Airspace Minnesota. He spoke about world leaders making bold announcements with defined timelines that exceed the current capabilities, as a powerful force to drive innovation.
On June 25-26, 2014, I was fortunate enough to attend the 8th Annual Red River Valley UAS Action Summit. This event is designed to bring together government, industry, educational institutions and the general public.
Michael Tuscano said it best: “If you give good information to smart people, they make good decisions.” He continued: “It is incumbent upon the members of the UAS community to provide education on UAS, so the public understands the technology and the applications that exist, as well as the challenges we face for integrating it safely.”
The challenges are a serious issue, but education is the key to unlocking the potential that exists. At the summit, Melissa Rudinger, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), related how three years ago she received very passionate and numerous negative responses to articles about unmanned aircraft systems in AOPA Magazine. She felt that much of this was influenced by the negative connotation of military-only use of UAS and concerns over the impact of these systems. Now people are starting to see applications emerging in precision agriculture, wildlife monitoring, pipeline inspection, wind turbine inspection, weather studies, aerial photography, real estate, and many more areas. AOPA is welcoming and even helping in the efforts to integrate UAS into the national airspace system, safely, without negatively impacting the existing system.
This acceptance has come about by the hard work of many to engage in the discussion and look at the tough questions, like, “What are UAS and what are they doing here?” Minnesota and North Dakota have been pioneers at answering the questions surrounding UAS applications that exist today, stirring the imagination for tomorrow, and seeing the need for highly educated technicians to embrace and safely integrate this new technology.
Beginning in 2009, the University of North Dakota launched the nation’s first UAS Pilot Certificate Program from their long-standing professional flight program.
In 2011, Northland Community and Technical College launched the nation’s first UAS Maintenance Training Program from its long standing (since 1959) Aviation Maintenance Technology, Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) Program.
In 2013, Northland launched the nation’s first two-year technical program to train Imagery Analysts on processing the large amounts of data that are produced from various platforms such as satellites, traditional aircraft and UAS.
With the desire to reach more people, Northland began offering courses in a Cisco Tele-Presence classroom, which allows for distance education on UAS. Cisco Tele-Presence is a high-end video conferencing environment, which allows instructors to extend their classroom, while maintaining contact and visual interaction with students at multiple locations. The classroom environment is accessed using WebEx and a number of other compatible interfaces.
These programs are providing the valuable training needed by technicians: to understand the software-driven operating systems controlling UAS; the changes taking place in the aviation industry; and education on composite structures, electronic systems, computers and unique operational concepts of UAS. Minnesota has many other programs that will provide critical education for the technological advances in the aerospace industry, such as air traffic control, professional flight, aviation management, and aerospace engineering.
The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, has a UAV research lab performing research on GPS limited environments, flutter-suppression techniques and enhanced fault detection. This research is designed to explore answers to some of the challenges facing the UAS industry.
The FAA has been working tirelessly at a plan to integrate UAS into the national airspace system. They are currently working on the regulations to address small UAS operations and are expected to release a notice of proposed rulemaking by the end of this year (2014). They are also working to start up the FAA UAS Center of Excellence, which will be a geographically dispersed consortium consisting of the FAA, and university partners and their affiliates to conduct UAS-related research, education and training, while working jointly on issues of mutual interest and concern.
Recently, in December 2013, the FAA also announced six test sites across the nation that will help the agency develop research findings and operational experiences to help in the integration process.
The North Dakota Department of Commerce was selected as one of the six test sites known as the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, and has the historic milestone of becoming the “First Operational” test site in the nation. This continues to increase the hub of activity for which the region and states are becoming well known.
Some of the first research projects UND and NDSU have begun will explore uses of UAS for agriculture in conjunction with researching airworthiness certification, validation of high reliability link technology, and sense and avoid systems.
Northland has begun conducting small UAS operations using the Vireo system manufactured by a Minnesota-based company, Fourth Wing Sensors of Mankato. This required an individual approval from the FAA known as a Certificate of Authorization (COA) to conduct flights gathering imagery of agricultural land in Roseau County. This data will then be used in Northland’s Imagery Analysis program to process the data into information that would be useful to a grower.
Beyond the educational opportunities, the region offers the Grand Forks Air Force Base, which is home to the medium-altitude, long-endurance MQ-1 and MQ-9 UAS used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Air Guard, and the high-altitude, long-endurance RQ-4 UAS, used by the U.S. Air Force. In central Minnesota, the Minnesota Guard uses the tactical RQ-7B Shadow and RQ-11 Raven UAS at Camp Ripley. Northrop Grumman and General Atomics personnel support the Grand Forks operations, and Textron personnel support operations at Camp Ripley. These companies have hired a number of graduates from Northland and UND’s UAS programs, and have placements across the country and the world. The Grand Forks Air Force Base is planning to lease 217 acres to Grand Forks County to build a UAS Research and Development Park. Activities like these will continue to increase the growing need for technicians educated in UAS technology in our region.
The Midwest has always been a leader in the aviation community and there is nowhere better to influence UAS education and integration. As the discussion is going, bring your passion and continue leading the nation in the aviation industry.
The partnerships of MnSCU, other college and university partners and high schools in our region, along with industry supporting education, will allow us to create professional development opportunities to educate high school and college faculty on the flight path these STEAM disciplines in aerospace and UAS will take. A further goal will be to develop more summer camps for K-12 students to explore the possibilities that exist in aviation and how education leads to success.
It’s an exciting time to be in the aviation industry. Many people compare the current state of UAS to computers in the 1980s. I think of the amazement there would have been, not too long ago, if you told someone they could slide their fingers across glass and magic would happen behind the screen. Someday, applications for UAS will be like the apps on an iPhone. Until then, we will continue educating the public and technicians to be ready for tomorrow.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jon Beck is the UAS Instructor/Program Manager at Northland Community and Technical College, Thief River Falls, Minnesota.