UAS technology gaining momentum

UND recognized for progress in UAS integration during UAS Summit & Expo

Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, moderates a panel on breakthroughs in unmanned aircraft integration. Martha Christie (center), FAA program manager, and Terri Zimmerman, Botlink CEO, were two of the panelists during the UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks this week. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Over the past several years, progress in taking advantage of the benefits offered by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) sometimes seemed to proceed at a snail’s pace. But if there was an overarching theme to the 13th Annual UAS Summit & Expo in Grand Forks this week, it was that significant developments now are happening in the UAS world.

“Things are really happening, and a lot of them are happening here,” said Mark Askelson, who heads UND’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), an event sponsor. At the conference, he spoke on university-led research guided by industry needs.

“We are extremely fortunate to have everybody looking in the same direction,” Askelson continued. “That runs from our leadership in Washington to our leadership in the state to the people of North Dakota to all the entities that make these things happen — whether it’s the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks Air Force Base or the Grand Sky commercial UAS park.”

Topics covered by speakers from government, industry and academia during the UAS Summit included: beyond visual line of sight operations (BVLOS); remote identification of drones; command and control systems; UAS operations at airports; UAS integration and commercialization; policy and regulation; weather forecasting for UAS operations; urban air mobility; risk-based assessment; and drone flights over people. Some of the businesses and organizations represented at the event were NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Northrop Grumman Corp. and Xcel Energy.

Julie Solheim (left) and Naomi Hansen with the UND Research Institute for Autonomous System (RIAS) visit with a conference attendee in the expo hall of the 13th annual UAS Summit & Expo at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

The two-day event attracted about 600 registrants from around the country, who came to the Alerus Center in Grand Forks to learn about the latest developments in UAS technology, operations and policy. Much of the discussion among panelists and presenters centered on the UAS Integration Pilot Program launched last year by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Martha Christie, the FAA’s manager for the UAS integration program, called the federal initiative “a million times better than what I expected. I haven’t seen anything like this happen in the 22 years I’ve been with the FAA.”

A project headed by the North Dakota Department of Transportation was one of 10 in the nation selected to participate in the program.

North Dakota’s UAS integration

Russ Buchholz, UAS integration program administrator with state transportation department, attributed North Dakota’s success in advancing UAS technologies to having great partners, such as the UND and North Dakota State University research universities and area businesses. He credited UND’s Committee on UAS Research, Ethics & Privacy for tackling issues dealing with the public perception of drones.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., moderated a panel with Gen. David Goldfein, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, and Bailey Edwards, assistant administrator for policy, international affairs and environment with the FAA. Hoeven noted that UAS technology development at UND and other parts of the U.S. is driving change in the aviation industry.

“We have to get to the point where we can handle UAS the same as we handle manned aircraft,” he said.

From left, Bailey Edwards, assistant FAA administrator, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Gen. David Goldfein, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, discussed federal perspectives on UAS issues during the 2019 UAS Summit. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

Hoeven noted that General Atomics recently received permission from the FAA to fly its Predator remotely piloted aircraft in a 60-mile radius around the Air Force base without a chase plane. In addition, General Atomics is using its Grand Forks facilities to train pilots from U.S.-allied countries, he said.

Goldfein recognized UND for its leadership in the UAS field and for offering a degree is UAS operations. With Grand Forks Air Force Base recently being designated as the 319th Reconnaissance Wing and flying the Northrup Grumman Global Hawk, Goldfein said the Air Force will rely heavily on the base and the University, particularly in developing software, which he said is the future of military air operations.

He also thanked the Grand Forks community for providing “the gold standard of how to embrace Air Force families.”

Edwards said UND was doing much of the “big-picture work” on UAS traffic management, considered one of the key technologies in integrating drones into the national airspace for commercial operations. He said another area in which the FAA is working is remote identification technology to curb the malicious use of drones flying below 400 feet.

Getting a jump start

Two buzz words heard often during the UAS summit were “repeatable” and “scalable.” In other words, can successful test results be repeated often enough to convince the FAA that certain UAS operations are safe? And can a technology that works well in testing be scaled up to work on the commercial level?

Nick Flom, executive director of the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, said the relationship between the test site and UND’s research is one of the keys to advancing UAS technology that leads to commercialization and integration.

The 13th Annual UAS Summit & Expo took place this week at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. The event attracted 600 registrants from government, industry and academia. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

“One of the interesting and beneficial components of North Dakota being part of the integration pilot program and also having a UAS test site is that we have the perfect environment for this,” he said. “The test site program has collaborated with the University since Day One. It’s absolutely critical. The test site has been a research entity.”

According to Flom, many companies come to the test site to conduct research with the goal of developing a commercial application at the end. North Dakota’s UAS investment provides industry with a full spectrum of resources to accomplish this, he noted.

“We can have the University — with the test site, with industry — do the research required in order to put out a commercial product,” Flom said. “A lot of these initiatives for beyond visual line of sight (flights) started out as research initiatives that we were able to leverage, and now we’re able to commercialize. And that’s really been one of those ultimate goals that we’re trying to achieve.”

Paul Snyder, director of the UND Aerospace UAS Program, said there’s a good reason some of the most significant developments in the unmanned aircraft field are happening in North Dakota, in the Grand Forks area and at UND.

“The nice thing is that around here, we didn’t have to start at Square One; we’ve had 50 years of aviation experience with all the aspects of safety, risk management, systems development, human factors and all that goes with it,” he explained. “We had a jump-start that upped our UAS ecosystem. Now, those pieces are starting to catch up. These processes are getting fine-tuned and more mature. People are comfortable with them.”