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USRI research engineer Rakshit Allamraju oversees a flight test for Vigilant Aerospace Systems to evaluate drone deconfliction systems (with Zimmer Nguyen at table and Kraettlin Epperson in background.)

Looking Upward

Friday, December 18, 2020

Through partnerships and a new NASA program, OSU is changing the future of unmanned flight.

In the rolling hills of Southeast Oklahoma, a group of drones takes flight, piloted by one
engineer.

“We had a team of students serving as safety pilots, but one engineer operated all aircraft spread over several miles from a single site,” said Jamey Jacob, director of OSU’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute (USRI). “While OSU has flown many of these one-to-many missions before — a single pilot controlling multiple drones simultaneously — this test was unique.

This time, the pilot was in control of six drones of three different types, similar to flying a helicopter, a general aviation aircraft and a new urban air taxi all at the same time.” This test was part of a new NASA program aimed at tackling some of its strategic research initiatives.

In August, NASA recognized a team of researchers from Oklahoma State University with the University Leadership Initiative Award (ULI). OSU is one of only five university teams to receive the award and a share of $32.8 million in funding over the next four years to address some of NASA’s strategic research initiatives.

OSU is the lead institution for this specific $5.2 million initiative.

“This is a follow-up to our $6 million five-year National Science Foundation project, CLOUD-MAP that just ended in July 2020,” Jacob said. “The ULI is a very high-profile program within NASA and brings great attention to USRI and our capabilities.”

The USRI team will work directly with leaders in NASA who are setting the requirements for the future of drone flight control — unmanned traffic management — that NASA is charged with developing, Jacob said.

“We are in  driver’s, er pilot’s, seat. In addition to setting the agenda, we have more team members involved,” Jacob added. “It also brings a lot of attention to our program from outside agencies and students.”

The NASA program is a single coordinated effort with many individual pieces that support each other, including drone development, enhanced weather modeling in urban areas and real-time reporting, Jacob said.

“Our effort, WINDMAP (Wind Intelligent Navigation Data and Models for Aviation Planning), will be a big part of this,” Jacob said. “OSU is the lead institution in charge of the program funded by NASA, but NASA plays a very close advisory and support role working with us.”

NASA is not the only group partnering on this project, though. Both the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) and Oklahoma startup Vigilant Aerospace Systems are involved with OSU.

Wide Open Spaces

The Choctaw Nation has a growing unmanned systems program. Its land in southeast Oklahoma was where OSU performed its first one-to-many test.

“The Choctaw Nation is one of our partners on the program, focusing on flight test and outreach,” Jacob said.

The CNO UAS test site is a unique area, spanning 44,000-plus acres yet conveniently remote, located within a few hours of three large airports. The objective in developing the test site was to help emerging aviation technologies to through the regulatory processes, said James Grimsley, executive director of the Advanced Technology Initiatives for the Choctaw Nation.

“It is very rare for a single landowner to own and control this much property,” Grimsley said. “We’ve been building this unique national asset since 2016, and it will truly be a one-of-a-kind facility for the nation.”

The Choctaw Nation is making critical investments in facilities and infrastructure, such as a ground-based-radar system, and has already entered into agreements with leading aerospace companies that have many decades of innovative aerospace and aviation experience, Grimsley said.

“OSU has a great reputation for building collaborative and innovative relationships with industry and government,” Grimsley said. “We also see OSU as one of the top leading UAS research institutions in the country.”

The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma was the only tribal government selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation to participate as a lead entity in the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program and is the first tribal government to be recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration as a public aircraft operator, Grimsley said. Both events were historically significant, he added.

“As we have demonstrated during the UAS  IPP, UAS technology and emerging aviation technology in general will have a positive impact on our members and our communities,” Grimsley said. “We believe that technology can help bridge infrastructure gaps in remote/developing areas and lead to improved quality of life and economic activity.”

The test site is a catalyst to promote economic development within the Choctaw Nation’s boundaries and to ensure the region is poised to fully participate in the next era of emerging aviation technologies, Grimsley said.

“We are excited about all aspects of our program, from helping to stimulate interest in STEM in our communities to assisting our economic developers with unique assets that help attract industry and high-paying jobs,” Grimsley said. “We are excited about even more future collaborations with OSU.”

Staying Vigilant

Vigilant is a familiar partner for OSU’s USRI. The Oklahoma City-based company has been working with OSU for over two years.

“Right now, the unmanned aircraft industry is in a state of rapid development,” said Kraettli Epperson, CEO of Vigilant Aerospace Systems Inc. “New capabilities are emerging quickly, and the regulations are racing to catch up. Companies are eager to use drones for a wide range of purposes, from bridge and road inspection to solar and wind farm maintenance to consumer package delivery,
but they need safety solutions to allow them to fly beyond the visual line of sight of the pilot.”

Pilots are required by regulation to maintain a safe distance from all manned aircraft, a difficult task if they cannot see the drone itself. Vigilant Aerospace develops safety systems to help bridge that gap.

“We have been working with Vigilant for twoplus years in helping support flight tests for the system development, called Flight Horizon,” Jacob said. “This is a software algorithm licensed by Vigilant from NASA to provide ‘see and avoid’ capabilities for drones to prevent collisions with manned aircraft and other drones.”

Vigilant is working with OSU’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute with the support of the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) on integrating small, portable radars into the system, Epperson said.

“The work with OSU has allowed us to advance this integration quicker and more efficiently than we would have been able to alone,” he said. “Jamey Jacob and the USRI team have deep industry expertise, good relationships with regulators and extensive testing knowledge,” Epperson said. “The USRI has provided our project with engineering support, pilots and aircraft, and flight operations and testing facilities. The USRI’s capabilities have allowed us to focus on our strengths in software and product development while they provide testing expertise and test flight operations.”

Vigilant is now focusing on how it can help with this new initiative.

“As a member of the team on this multiyear project, Vigilant Aerospace will be working to leverage the success of our air traffic avoidance system into a system that also includes wind and weather hazard avoidance to provide a more complete solution for drone safety,” Epperson said. “We think the future is bright for the development of all kinds of safe, autonomous systems in Oklahoma, and we want to help make the state a national leader in the industry.”

Pursuing Growth

This new initiative, as well as the other projects the USRI is working on are proof of OSU’s leadership in this area. Many industrial end-users, such as Uber and Amazon, are also very interested in the program, Jacob said.

Since this will affect manned aviation, particularly airline flights by providing better forecasts thus improving on-time departures and arrivals, enhanced de-icing processes, lower turbulence and more, airlines and airports are also very interested, he said.

“Selection to the NASA University Leadership Program confirms OSU’s expertise and preeminence in unmanned systems, particularly in the area of unmanned aircraft for weather and meteorological applications,” Jacob said. “The challenge our team is addressing will have an impact across a wide range of aircraft for decades to come, not only helping advance the integration of drones and urban air taxis into the national airspace, but also increasing the safety of air transportation and airport operations for all aircraft from airliners and general aviation aircraft alike.”

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