Commercial, Military

Opinion: Oklahoma Leads US Into Commercial UAS Era

By Stephen McKeever | May 12, 2014
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[Avionics Today May 12, 2014] Oklahoma is a major hub for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) commercial and military applications in the United States. Home to the only federal UAS program in the U.S., Oklahoma holds the only site dedicated solely to the application of UAS for public safety. The state also has the first university graduate program in UAS engineering at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and provides support for UAS operations for Department of Defense programs in restricted airspace. 

Stephen McKeever.

With all the state’s credentials, Oklahoma’s UAS infrastructure is meeting the development, application and operational needs of the fast-emerging commercial UAS industry. Numerous applications are presently under research and development in the state that will be necessary for precision agriculture, severe weather research and meteorology, exploration of natural resources, crop and herd monitoring and management, forestry, first response, law enforcement, and border patrol. 

Researchers at Oklahoma universities, for example, are utilizing UAS platforms for weather and radar-related research and using UAS-based technology for applications that range from lower atmospheric monitoring and boundary layer studies to the development of innovative new sense-and–avoid technologies.  The National Weather Center and The University of Oklahoma’s new Radar Innovations Laboratory will continue to play important roles in OU’s UAS-based applications research.
UAVs are also being developed to help ensure safe, permanent storage of carbon dioxide in geologic carbon sinks, which is vital for the success of geologic storage projects. The National Energy Technology Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy has set a goal of 99 percent storage permanence in Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) projects. The development of monitoring technology that is capable of validating storage permanence while ensuring the integrity of CCUS operations is essential for meeting the goals of carbon dioxide emissions reduction, environmental protection, and human health and safety. 
To address these issues, Oklahoma State University, with the cooperation of the Southwest Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (SWP), is developing and implementing new near-surface and airborne monitoring technologies. The research program focuses on the design and deployment of a dense grid of shallow subsurface and surface sensors in combination with low-altitude airborne detection of carbon dioxide and methane using UAVs. The research will also be applicable to oil and natural gas pipeline inspection.
Researchers at OU are investigating ways to use simple animal navigation techniques for both ground and air vehicles. For example, insect navigation offers an elegantly simple solution for retracing previously experienced routes without the need for complex neural architectures and memory retrieval mechanisms. The implications of this approach to animal navigation and to the development of visual augmentation systems and robot guidance algorithms are tremendous and offer new approaches to the sense-and-avoid problem.
OSU graduate students have been developing UAVs for livestock and wildlife observation. Cattle monitoring is a vital, yet time-consuming task for cattle producers. Locating missing animals is of utmost importance, as animals in distress need immediate attention.
An airborne surveillance system would greatly benefit a rancher's ability to locate stolen or sick cattle and to identify herd behavioral changes that may indicate other environmental conditions impacting herd health and safety. The unmanned aircraft could also be evaluated to assist with counter poaching and illicit wildlife poaching and trafficking. Poaching endangered species is a major problem in wildlife parks across the world, including rhinos and snow leopards. The students will demonstrate capability to spot livestock in fields and track their location. 
Currently, there is little understanding of the detailed formation of tornadoes within Super cells, since no detailed data has been obtained. Radars currently do not provide data of temperature and pressure required for meteorological models. A team from OU and OSU are working together to address this problem. While OU is using advanced radar techniques to help detect early signatures of storm initiation, OSU students are working on the design of a UAV for severe storm investigations. 
Called MARIA for Meteorological Analysis and Research Investigation Aircraft, the vehicle is currently under development and integration. The goal of the project is to perform baseline tests of airborne sensing systems using UAVs for meteorological measurements.
Similarly, students at OU are using UAVs to investigate the static and dynamic stability of the atmosphere. Called the SMARTSonde (Small Multifunction Re- search and Teaching Sonde), it relates atmospheric stability to the state of the boundary layer across a variety of times and locations, measurements otherwise difficult to access using conventional instrumentation.  
The UAS initiatives I just described won’t be truly accessible for general use until the FAA starts authorizing sophisticated beyond line of sight commercial UAS applications. In order for this to happen,  “Detect-and-avoid” technologies will need to be researched and developed. Such technologies will allow a UAS to detect the presence of another aircraft, range, speed and direction, and take avoiding action to prevent a collision. A great deal of R&D on such technologies, especially ones based on radar (ground based or airborne), GPS, ADS-B or similar systems, is presently also taking place in Oklahoma and elsewhere throughout the nation.

It is very difficult to predict when we might expect to see such systems in operation in the national airspace. One of the purposes (perhaps the primary purpose) of the recently selected six FAA Test Sites is to allow R&D and testing of the needed technologies for this to happen. The goal is to achieve the required technology and safety by 2017. However, one cannot legislate technology development, so we will have to wait and see. Even after the technology is in place, writing regulations and rule making will also be needed and that imposes another uncertainty. 

Note: Dr. Stephen McKeever is Oklahoma’s Secretary of Science and Technology. He is the former Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer at Oklahoma State University and is a Regents Professor in OSU’s department of physics. As Secretary of Science & Technology he serves as Chairman of the Governor’s Science & Technology Council, and the UAS Advisory Council.

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