SALINA (AP) — Being on the cutting edge of a new technology often really means being on several cutting edges at once.
That’s what’s happening with the new unmanned aerial vehicle program at Kansas State University at Salina.
The college — one of just two in the country starting programs to train UAV operators — held an open house recently so students and faculty could see the equipment and hear about the current and future capabilities of unmanned flight.
A number of UAVs were on display, along with a large trailer the school acquired about a month ago. It was filled with the computer equipment needed to fly the aircraft and monitor information, such as video, the UAVs send back.
For several months now, Kansas State at Salina has partnered with Flint Hills Solutions, a Wichita-based company that works as a liaison between various UAV makers and government agencies such as FEMA and the National Guard.
As groups of students and faculty came and went, Flint Hills president Roger Powers explained that while some of the aircraft on display might look like the kind flown by hobbyists, they’re loaded with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including video and infrared cameras that can be controlled from the ground, GPS systems and even electronics that allow them to fly missions autonomously.
Despite their increasing sophistication, UAVs are still generally restricted from flying in the national airspace, limiting their usefulness in, for example, searching for survivors or surveying damage after a tornado.
But, Powers said, Kansas State has applied for a certificate of authorization from the FAA to fly UAVs in open airspace; the school and Flint Hills have been flying for months now in the restricted airspace at the Smoky Hill Weapons range, just southwest of Salina.
Once given that authorization to fly in open airspace around Salina, Powers said, the FAA can grant an emergency authorization within hours to fly in another location, such as over tornado damage.
Powers said he expects that by tornado season, the Kansas State/Flint Hills partnership will have the needed permission to fly over any damaged areas, using either regular video or infrared, which could detect survivors buried in rubble.
Kansas State was the first to apply for such authorization using the FAA’s new online application method, said Kurt Barnhart, chairman of the aviation department. “That’s just one of many firsts for us with UAVs.”
Of course, it would be even better if the FAA didn’t have to grant specific permission for each operation; one of the main impediments is that UAVs currently lack an automated “sense and avoid” system that would allow them to stay out of the way of other aircraft.
Such systems are available for manned aircraft, but are too large and heavy for small UAVs.
But Powers said Flint Hills is investing millions of dollars in a lab to research and development in miniaturizing electronic components.
Barnhart said the lab, which will be in an older building at Kansas State at Salina, will include a “clean room” where the air is more than 10 times cleaner than ordinary room air.
He expects the lab will be operational later this semester.
“We’ve reached the wall in terms of miniaturization,” Powers said. The new miniaturization lab is designed to push beyond what’s available now.
To illustrate, Powers pointed to an autopilot unit about the size of two sardine cans mounted on an gas-powered unmanned helicopter that’s several feet long. The goal, he said, is to shrink those electronics — along with the GPS system and other components to where they can fit on a helicopter that’s only about a foot long.
The hope, Barnhart and Powers said, is that Kansas State can not only become a leader in training people to fly UAVs and operate their payloads of cameras and other sensors, but also develop new technology help the FAA set the rules for integration of UAVs into national airspace on a routine basis.
“Right now, it’s like the wild, wild west of aviation,” Barnhart said. “We have a good relationship with the FAA, and can make recommendations.”
Demand for pilots will still be needed.
“This is amazing stuff,” said Tyler Sanders, a professional pilot major who was looking over the various displays.
Does he worry he’s looking at the demise of his chosen career?
“We were just talking about that,” he said, referring to fellow pilots in training. “No, there are still many things you need pilots for — especially if you’re carrying passengers.”