Edition 2015

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Flight of the Future

NMSU is pioneering operation of unmanned aerial vehicles in southern New Mexico.
by Ellen Davis

Unmanned aerial vehicle

NMSU put this 21-foot unmanned aerial vehicle through a week of drills at the Las Cruces Airport in December. The university is working to help speed the introduction of unmanned vehicles into the national airspace system.

It’s the year 2015 and all of the country’s overnight delivery services are flying their airplanes without a pilot on board. Instead, the planes are controlled by pilots on the ground.

Sound far-fetched? Not to experts in the rapidly growing field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Among these are employees of the UAV Technical Analysis and Applications Center (TAAC) in NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory. The center was created to help speed the introduction of unmanned vehicles into the national airspace system.

“While the U.S. military has flown UAVs in its airspace for years, there has been little effort until now to routinely fly them in civilian airspace,” says Steve Hottman, deputy director of the Physical Science Laboratory and director of the TAAC. “We believe there is tremendous potential for civilian and commercial applications of UAVs.”

Hottman says there is a growing interest in UAVs because of their ability to perform certain tasks less expensively than manned airplanes, and without risk to a pilot. Potential applications range from border reconnaissance to search and rescue to detecting and monitoring forest fires.

UAV research is a natural for NMSU and its Physical Science Laboratory, which has developed aerospace and related expertise for five decades, beginning with the testing of German V-2 rockets at White Sands Missile Range after World War II.

The TAAC was established in 1999, and just two years later received the Frost & Sullivan Market Engineering Technology Leadership Award – the first time this award was given to a university. TAAC sponsors an annual conference for UAV users and suppliers that has drawn participants from around the world.

Partnership with Holloman

PSL has a four-year, $9.1 million contract from the Defense Department to work with the 46th Test Group at Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo to facilitate routine entry of UAVs into national air space.

“We are trying to come up with a series of protocols so that manned airplanes don’t have anything to worry about when UAVs are flying in the same airspace,” says Ken Wernle, the contract monitor with the 46th Test Group.

Wernle explains that the military is interested in this work because there may be cases where it needs to fly UAVs in the national airspace. He says integrating UAVs into U.S. airspace is particularly challenging because of the large number of general aviation airplanes that share the same air-space.

TAAC is looking at all classes of UAVs – from micro UAVs that fit into the palm of a hand to large UAVs that are the size of a Boeing 737. Its efforts took a major step forward this past year with two week-long demonstrations.

The first occurred last summer, when TAAC worked with the Coast Guard and homeland security officials on a series of demonstrations in Alaska. A UAV was flown from California to King Salmon Airport at the north end of the Aleutian Islands, and NMSU did all the airspace planning for the trip. Once in Alaska, the UAV was sent on a variety of missions, from surveillance of the Alaska Pipeline to patrolling the Bristol Bay Fishery. While there, the governor of Alaska asked the team to fly over an area that was hard-hit with forest fires.

“We found some new ‘hot spots’ and forwarded that information to state officials,” Hottman says.

The UAV used for the Alaska flights was a civilian version of General Atomics’ Predator B UAV that has been used for defense missions in the Middle East. It has an 86-foot wingspan that can fly up to 52,000 feet and remain airborne for more than 30 hours.

The second milestone occurred in December, when TAAC staffers put a UAV through a week of drills based out of TAAC’s home at the Las Cruces Airport. The UAV flew five missions, some of which took it as far as 60 miles from the airport. Drills included finding people who had walked around Border Patrol checkpoints, conducting surveillance on a 20-mile length of railroad track, and checking out bridges to make sure the roads near them were not washed out.

The UAV used for the New Mexico flights was a mid-sized one with a 21-foot wingspan that is capable of flying for up to 10 hours at altitudes as high as 18,000 feet.

Staff members from New Mexico’s congressional delegation were impressed with the video imagery acquired during the flights, as was Gen. Annette Sobel, former director of the New Mexico Governor’s Office of Homeland Security. TAAC staff members are defining the equipment, staffing and procedures involved with adding UAV capability to the state’s current homeland security program.

Sobel says it was helpful to have the TAAC working with her on UAV-related issues because it is an independent university-based center.

Homeland security uses

Those involved with the test flights in New Mexico say UAVs could greatly enhance homeland security efforts.

“A UAV can tell you whether an object (on the ground) is really a threat or something that can be dismissed,” says John Italiane, a representative for General Dynamics, which is one of the leading manufacturers of UAVs.

If an object is a threat, a UAV can lock in on the target and continually relay its coordinates to security agents on the ground with an accuracy of within a few feet. It can then safely direct security officials to their rendezvous points.

“A UAV provides an agent on the ground with better situational awareness, thus reducing the potential for a surprise,” says TAAC’s Dennis Zaklan.

Zaklan notes that UAVs have many applications in addition to law enforcement. The Bureau of Land Management, for example, could use UAVs to count the number of animals in an area. Or a power company could use them to find breaks in a power line.

The U.S. Air Force has asked NMSU to help it evaluate whether UAVs could be used to replace C-130 “storm hunter” planes in the Pacific.

New facility planned

NMSU’s goal is to become a leader in testing UAVs and in training people to design, build, maintain and operate them.

“New Mexico is a good place to try out UAV concepts, systems and subsystems prior to real-world implementation because of its good weather and wide open spaces,” Hottman says. “Also, PSL has a great relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is crucial to help facilitate safe integration of UAVs into the national airspace system.”

NMSU has a unique Certificate of Authorization from the FAA that allows it to fly UAVs in the national airspace system. From the Las Cruces Airport, the certificate grants the university access to 5,000 square miles of air space below 18,000 feet and 300,000 square miles of airspace above 18,000 feet.

Construction is expected to begin this year on a new $300,000 hangar and maintenance facility at the Las Cruces Airport that will serve as headquarters for PSL’s UAV program. UAVs could become an area of focus for the new aeronautical engineering program at NMSU, which is expected to start in the fall of 2005.

For more information: http://www.psl.nmsu.edu/uav/

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