Unmanned aerial vehicles changed the way we approach war. Now, the men and women behind the tools' development, design and operation are working to help them change civilian life as well.
In 2004, Maj. Jay Lovelady entered a command center in Iraq and saw the future of military tactical operations. There, in the back of the room, were monitors and controls for an unmanned aerial system (UAS). He didn't know exactly how but he knew that technology would change his job forever.
"I was a pilot and they just had us sitting in the back of the room while they discussed how we were going to carry out operations," Lovelady recalled. "Then these guys started setting up this UAS next to me, so I started asking questions. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know about the possibilities of this technology."
It wasn't long before UAS became a staple in many military missions. Lovelady said these systems were particularly important for missions where the Army needed eyes on a scene but sending a person in would have endangered lives.
"UAS has become a valuable tool for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance," Lovelady said. "A lot of times we need to do persistent surveillance in an area, but pilots can only stay in the air for so long before fatigue begins to be a potentially dangerous issue. Plus, full-sized aircraft are noisy and fairly easy to spot from the ground."
He continued, "With unmanned systems you can watch an area for days at a time without letting your presence be known. That way we can notice small changes in activity that could indicate something is going on that we should know about."
Sgt. Brett Vanwey, whose second deployment to Iraq was with a UAS unit, agreed. He said that in his field experience the systems were "force multipliers."
"These systems gave us the ability to react to situations more effectively by allowing us to know what we were going into," he said. "It gave us situational awareness so we could plan and react without sending someone into harm's way to assess the situation."
Today both Vanwey and Lovelady work at the regional flight center at Mississippi's Camp Shelby. Located just outside of Hattiesburg, it is one of only a few sites nationwide that provides training for the Army's unmanned aerial systems program.
"This is essentially a place where soldiers from across the military can come fly unmanned aircraft safely," Lovelady said.
The training center offers the airspace and infrastructure necessary for soldiers to learn and test the limits of UAS technology without interfering with commercial air traffic. But Lovelady said he believes that as more people learn to use this technology, the more they will want to explore its possibilities and integrate it into the national airspace.
"These don't have to be just military tools. Their domestic applications are endless," Lovelady said. "It's not the uses we can see on the horizon, it's the things we can't even think about yet that are exciting. The technology they develop to make those things possible, it could spin out and affect all aspects of our lives, not just UAS.
"And it's engineers that are going to do that," he continued. "It's got to be exciting to be on the ground floor of technology like that."
Exploring the possibilities of UAS
Taking unmanned systems to the next level was the topic of a conference held last spring at Mississippi State. Leaders from across the country came to campus to discuss issues in the industry while the university showed how it is in the position to be a hub for UAS research.
"Our experience ranges from aerospace engineering and computational modeling to simulations and advanced materials," said David Shaw, vice president of research and economic development. "We have a tremendous pool of talent across the university with immense opportunities to work with everyone from federal agencies to manufacturers."
Shaw explained that UAS are seen as good tools for jobs that are considered dull, dirty or dangerous. Referred to as the three Ds, these types of tasks can be anything a manned flight couldn't or wouldn't do. Most people are familiar with the military uses for these aircraft—weapons systems, surveillance and guidance—but there also are endless civilian possibilities to be explored.
"This technology has the potential to change the way we monitor hurricanes, patrol our borders, respond to disasters, or even continuous monitoring of areas that are of scientific interest," Shaw said.
Already, researchers at MSU's Geosystems Research Institute have started collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop UAS capable of monitoring weather phenomenon.
Engineers and scientists within the college are also helping train local SWAT units to use these systems in active shooter scenarios. In this application, the aircraft can send live images to a control unit so officers can see what's going on in a building before sending in people.
Meanwhile, Pan Li, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, is exploring a use of UAS that goes beyond its applications as a visual system. He wants to use these aircraft as wireless network boosters during emergencies.
"After disasters, communication is very important, but many times you have limited network access that quickly drains your power sources as you try to connect," Li said. "If we can use UAS to boost signals, you can transmit and receive messages over larger distances while using less of your device's energy."
Giving industry a boost
Lori Mann Bruce, the associate dean for research, said there is a lot of excitement surrounding UAS in the college, but it's not limited to exploring and developing uses for the technology. Many researchers are partnering with manufacturers to build better unmanned systems and products.
"Our research facilities, and specifically our material fabrication capabilities, make us valuable partners for manufacturers," she said. "We can use these aircraft for low-cost testing of technology that will be applied to larger aircraft."
Matt Fox at the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory recently finished such test, which was able to provide more extensive data than his client thought they would be able to afford.
"Our partner needed to test a product that will eventually be used on full sized aircraft on a specific type of material," Fox explained. "Because of our experience with unmanned vehicles, we were not only able to test it on that material, but we were able to fabricate a scale model wing which provided more thorough test data."
Raspet is a unique facility in the Southeast, which has been instrumental in bringing aerospace industry to Mississippi. Bruce said building a strong base in UAS research is a natural continuation of the lab's mission to be on the forefront of aerospace research and able to help industry with its changing needs.
One specific need the lab addresses is helping manufacturers test their products. Raspet's Phil Bridges explained that because unmanned aircraft are relatively new, the Federal Aviation Administration is still working to integrate them into the national airspace.
"The biggest problem with having unmanned vehicles in the civil airspace is 'see and avoid,'" he said. "There's not a person onboard to react if it crosses paths with another aircraft, which could put manned flights at risk. We need to make some advances to overcome that problem, and until then the FAA is very strict about UAV use."
Currently, nonrecreational use of unmanned vehicles requires a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA, which allows for a specific vehicle to be flown, in specific airspace, under specific conditions.
"And these certificates are only available to public entities," Bridges continued. "So for a company to test its UAV products it must have a partnership with a public unit and Mississippi State is one of only a few public universities with experience in obtaining and administering COAs."
As part of a partnership with Stark Aerospace, Mississippi State has acquired a COA to test the company's Heron unmanned aircraft. This means that representatives from Raspet are responsible for observing the test flights to make sure everything is in accordance with federal regulations.
Bridges said that experience administering a COA helps solidify the university as a hub for UAS development, which helps make the state of Mississippi an attractive location for aerospace companies in need of a home for their UAS operations.
"The COA is just another demonstration of the expertise we have in unmanned aircraft," Bridges said. "Our faculty, researchers and students are gaining UAS experience from many different angles and that can mean big things for the state as this industry grows."