Sunday, November 5, 2017

Tapping into high-flying drone industry: As field grows rapidly in Ohio, Kent State adds a study focus

Sometimes, it can seem like college professors just drone on and on.

Kent State University has hired some of them to do just that.

The school is preparing to graduate the first students of its aeronautics program with a minor in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), aka drones, in December.

The program only has about 15 students, out of more than 500 in the school's aeronautics program, but professors Blake Stringer and Jason Lorenzon think they'll have more students going forward.

"We're definitely seeing more interest," said Stringer, who was seated next to a DJI Phantom, the ubiquitous, white quad-copter that is like an emoji for drones.

"I saw one just flying down the beach on vacation — right above people!" Lorenzon said.

He teaches the legal and regulatory aspects of UAS. No-nos, such as flying a drone above people, tend to set him off, he said.

That might be because Lorenzon, like Stringer, is a pilot, too, and people who fly around in real planes tend to be sticklers for the rules and procedures that keep them alive. But they also want to see rules followed with drones because they and industry advocates don't want to see the industry get a black eye that could stunt its growth.

Kent State, along with other industry participants, is holding an event on Wednesday, Nov. 29, in Independence to provide updates on the drone industry and its opportunities — and where the school hopes to cultivate further interest in the industry and its program.

So far, though, industry growth is, well, taking off. And Kent State is on top of it with its new minor.

"I think it's terrific," said Jeff Rolf, president of the Ohio Aerospace Institute, when told of the school's new program.

Rolf is already involved with the development of UAS technology in the state.

He thinks the state — with its drone technology and related business and technical assets — is well-positioned to be what he calls the "re-birthplace of aviation."

Rolf said there are already several Ohio companies working on advanced systems for things like collision avoidance and that UAS technology is progressing faster than most people outside of the industry realize.

While people are familiar with the hobbyist drones and the very big UAS vehicles used by the military, there's an entire range of applications in between that are growing rapidly, he said.

They include things like systems that do land surveys, inspect pipelines, bridges or other infrastructure; or systems that deliver not only packages, but things such as first-aid supplies and anti-venom in hard-to-reach locales. And soon drones may be able to pick you up in one place and drop off you in another.

That's right, Rolf said. In the foreseeable future, you might call for a personal transportation drone instead of a ride-share service.

"The Ohio Federal Research Network has put out a request for information on a five-year program on three different kinds of drones," Rolf said.

One is for UAS systems that do things like surveys and inspections, one is for logistic delivery systems that might deliver packages, and the third is for "personal aerial vehicles," he said.

"They're looking at, within five years, having unpiloted personal aerial vehicles … You could walk out of your favorite restaurant, key into your phone that you want one of these PAVs to pick you up and take you over to the ball game."

His excitement over all of this reminds Rolf of a childhood visit to the 1963 World's Fair.

There, he was thrilled to see a man fly with a jet pack on his back, he said.

Whether or not he's right about the world getting the flying cars it's always wanted, no one doubts that drones are becoming big business and have huge potential as an industry.

In southwest Ohio, the state just carved out 200,000 square miles and covered them with three radar systems that will allow drones to be tested in an intensely monitored and controlled environment, said David Gallagher, chief of staff for the Ohio/Indiana UAS Center & Test Complex, run by the Ohio Department of Transportation in Springfield.

"As a state, we're actually doing some pretty amazing stuff," he said, noting he's aware of more than a dozen community colleges and state schools that have some sort of drone program, training students to do things like inspect Lake Erie break walls or monitor pest management programs in agriculture.

"There's always new uses for this … Every other week or so we get a new idea," he said.

The state hopes to get federal permission to fly drones beyond line of sight — meaning the pilot only sees the drone, or what the drone sees, electronically while the drone is far away. If it's allowed to do that in its new carefully designed space, it could boost efforts underway to develop new UAS technology, including all-important collision-avoidance systems, Gallagher said.

Entrepreneur Jeff Taylor graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2009 and founded Event 38 in Akron more than five years ago.

He takes off-the-shelf platforms and components for fixed-wing drones and combines them with custom hardware, software and system designs. He then sells customized working drones at a fraction of the cost of most do-it-all competitors.

He had orders on Day One and has never had to go looking for investors, he said. The company is already profitable and makes UAS that do survey work for mining and forestry operations, agricultural service providers and other end users.

The technology wasn't as big when Taylor was in school, he said. But a minor or even a full-blown degree is a great idea in today's world, he said, because a lot of traditional aerospace training does not automatically apply to drones.

"From the design standpoint in terms of the aerospace stuff that we're doing with drones at this size and scale, it's a little different than what you do with bigger planes," Taylor said.

At Kent State, students are not only learning about drones, but getting commercial licenses and flying them for profit. They work for people like local real estate agents who want aerial photos or videos of the properties they market.

The job opportunities are a big reason that Stringer and Lorenzon think their program will continue to grow. There's increasing demand for not only people to design and build drones, but to maintain and repair fleets of them, and to fly them professionally.

"We're seeing jobs at $80,000 and $100,000 a year to be a drone operator," Lorenzon said, with experienced pilots able to get jobs working for broadcasters or oil and gas companies.

Kent State 2015 graduate Alex Flock finished his degree in aeronautical systems engineering before there was an official minor in UAS, but he was involved with the field before he got to Kent and at internships at NASA, where he now works in UAS systems at its Armstrong Research Center in California.

He thinks the minor will only help future students.

"I believe there is a lot of value in getting an education that includes unmanned aerial systems. The industry only continues to grow," he said. "The technology is getting much more advanced, especially within automated and autonomous systems."

Original article can be found here ➤

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