Montana State University to Operate National Center of Excellence for UAS

Montana State University is part of a team just selected to operate a national Center of Excellence for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Led by Mississippi State University, the team will focus on research, education and training in areas that are critical to safely and successfully integrating unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the nation’s airspace. The team consists of 18 of the nation’s leading UAS and aviation universities and a hundred leading industry, government partners.

“This world-class, public-private partnership will help us focus on the challenges and opportunities of this cutting-edge technology,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “We expect this team will help us to educate and train a cadre of unmanned aircraft professionals well into the future.”

Doug Cairns, professor in MSU’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and head of MSU’s UAS researchers, said, “It has been a fierce competition, but we won. Now the work begins.”

MSU played an important role in the formation of the team, Cairns said.

“It is fair to say that U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) initiated this effort over four years ago,” Cairns said. “Also, MSU’s Western Transportation Institute had some discussions on UAS operations, as well. That evolved into a Mississippi State University and Montana State University team in 2012."

With support from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's Office and the Montana Department of Transportation, Cairns said, "We approached Congress to develop a separate Center of Excellence for UAS in 2013. The team and topics have gone through many iterations to get to its present state. Between the Federal Aviation Administration needs, and the expertise of the team, it bears little resemblance to the initial activities. This ultimately blossomed into the final, successful ASSURE team to address the FAA needs for UAS technology.”

ASSURE -- the name of the new team -- refers to the “Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence.”

Congress has charged the FAA with developing rules regulating commercial UAS. The new center will provide the agency and industry with research to maximize the potential of commercial unmanned systems with minimal changes to the current system regulating manned aircraft.

“This team has the capabilities and resources to quickly get up and running to help the FAA address the demands of this challenging technology over the next decade,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

The FAA expects the new center will be able to begin research by September and be fully operational and engaged in a robust research agenda by January. Initial research areas will include detect-and-avoid technology; low-altitude operations safety; control and communications; spectrum management; human factors; compatibility with air traffic control operations; and training and certification of UAS pilots and other crewmembers.

Research will take place at member universities throughout the United States and globally, but the center’s work will be concentrated at Stennis Space Center to take advantage of airspace over the Gulf of Mexico, in the Mississippi Delta to conduct unmanned precision agriculture research and around Mississippi State’s Raspet Flight Research Lab.

Montana State University is a core member of the new center, and it will continue to conduct UAS research, but it is not a test site, Cairns said. The FAA, which selected the team to operate the center, chose six test sites across the country based on their geography, climate, ground infrastructure, research needs, airspace use, safety, aviation experience and risk.

Cairns added that MSU will receive funds for five to 10 years for this center. The funds will require non-federal matching funds, including funds from the team’s industrial partners.

David Shaw, chief research officer at Mississippi State University, said the use of unmanned air systems in non-conflict situations is growing with applications well suited for natural disaster response, humanitarian relief efforts, environmental impact assessment and precision agriculture.

Members of the new team, in addition to MSU and Mississippi State, include Drexel University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kansas State University, New Mexico State University, North Carolina State University, Oregon State University, University of Alabama-Huntsville, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, University of Kansas, University of North Dakota, Wichita State University, Auburn University (associate member), Concordia (associate member), Indiana State University (associate member), Louisiana Tech University, Tuskegee University (associate member), and University of Southampton (associate member).


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