Sky’s the limit

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp takes control of drones at UND’s Robin Hall, reviews research collaborations

Heidi Heitkamp and Amanda Brandt

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (left) operates a miniature multi-rotor UAV, alongside local UAS expert Amanda Brandt, inside Robin Hall, the headquarters of UND’s unmanned programs. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

It was anything but a crash course in UAS flight operations for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., recently when she visited the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences to get an update on unmanned aviation efforts here.

After visiting with Aerospace school officials and handling a flight simulator that mimicked one of the industry’s larger UAS platforms, Heitkamp moved to the testing floor of Robin Hall, UND’s UAS headquarters, and showed her skill in operating couple of smaller models.

With the operating controls strapped around her, Heitkamp was a quick study and soon had the quadcopter — a Flame Wheel 5000 — hovering and buzzing over the testing space. She then moved onto an even tinier UAS model, a grapefruit-sized platform with the agility of a hummingbird, and proceeded to make it do mid-air flips before righting itself into perfect hover.

The senator was a natural on the controls, demonstrating she’s becoming one of the more knowledgeable lawmakers in Congress when it comes to unmanned systems, an important growth area for UND and North Dakota.

Heitkamp was impressed with UND’s build-it-from-scratch-and-fly-it educational model as well as the school’s emphasis on making the UAS frontier more accessible to all.

“I think it is really important that I understand the technology,” Heitkamp said, “and what I thought was really exciting was to see how aggressive they are going to be in recruiting women into the program, especially young women in STEM education, showing how much fun it can be inventing and building a quadcopter and flying what you’ve actually built.”

Heidi Heitkamp and Ben Trapnell

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and UND Associate Professor of Aviation Ben Trapnell share a laugh during Heitkamp’s visit to UND’s Robin Hall to learn about the school’s unmanned aircraft programs. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

Build and fly

UND Associate Professor of Aviation Ben Trapnell explained that every student in his “Systems of Unmanned Aircraft” course must build his or her own UAS platform and successfully fly it. It forces students to be more than UAS pilots — it forces them to understand systems engineering: the ‘nuts and bolts,’ and how they come together to make it work.

In the end, the rigor and demands of the UND program make our graduates highly sought in the UAS industry, Trapnell said.

“They are not engineers, but they are able to talk to engineers,” Trapnell said. “These students are getting an advanced graduate school-level education in systems engineering as undergrads.”

To cap off her visit, Heitkamp received a quick review of UAS research collaborations taking place at the University.

Heitkamp learned about a project in which UND is working with the FAA to improve sense-and-avoid capabilities, which would allow UAS to be operated more safely in general aviation and commercial airspace. A similar but separate research effort has UND integrating and improving Beyond Line of Sight command-and-control capabilities for UAS platforms.

Through a Research ND collaboration, the University also is partnering with private-sector UND spinoff entities, such as SkySkopes and Field of View, and local utility providers to use drones to inspect power lines.

Heitkamp was impressed with the variety and breadth of UND’s UAS research collaborations. Later, she stressed that Congress must urge the FAA to do more to encourage such projects to compete with other nations that tend to be even more friendly to UAS research.

“The sky’s the limit and your imagination is really the only thing that limits you in terms of how we can use this technology, Heitkamp remarked.

U.S.-Russia experts

On Friday (March 31), Heitkamp will be on campus again, this time playing host to two international experts on U.S.-Russia relations. The experts, The Hon. Kenneth S. Yalowitz and Matthew Rojansky, are set to discuss “U.S.-Russia Relations and the Geopolitics of a Changing Arctic” at 9:30 a.m., in Clifford Hall Room 210.

The event, co-hosted by the UND Department of Political Science and Public Administration, is part of the Kennen Conversation program of the Wilson Center’s Kennen Institute.