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UVU bidding to own the skies: Aviation department heads alliance to become FAA test facility for domestic drone use

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 7:41 p.m. MDT

In this Jan. 8, 2009, photo provided by the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff's Department, a small Draganflyer X6 drone makes a test flight in Mesa County, Colo. with a Forward Looking Infrared payload. The drone, which was on loan to the sheriff's department from the manufacturer, measures about 36 inches from rotor tip to rotor tip, weights just over two pounds. (Mesa County Sheriff's Unmanned Operations Team, Associated Press) In this Jan. 8, 2009, photo provided by the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff's Department, a small Draganflyer X6 drone makes a test flight in Mesa County, Colo. with a Forward Looking Infrared payload. The drone, which was on loan to the sheriff's department from the manufacturer, measures about 36 inches from rotor tip to rotor tip, weights just over two pounds. (Mesa County Sheriff's Unmanned Operations Team, Associated Press)

OREM — The Federal Aviation Administration is pushing for institutions to bid on becoming training sites for a congressionally mandated test facility that will develop future regulations on the domestic and civilian use of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Systems.

There will be six test facilities in different locations, and Utah Valley University is headlining an alliance with an aggressive bid that will be awarded this summer.

The dean of the college of Aviation and Public Services Wayne Dornan, Ph.D, is excited to be on the forefront of the rapidly changing field of aviation and spoke out on the attempt to secure a spot as one of the few test facilities to develop regulations on the private, domestic and military use of these unmanned aerial vehicles.

In this Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, a U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press) In this Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010 file photo, a U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated Press)

“The alliance that we have formed to go after this test facility is called the Mountain West Unmanned Systems Alliance or MWUSA. It’s comprised of universities who are doing research and development on UAS and private industry as well. UVU is the lead institution so we will be the ones that are guiding all of this, so we are pretty excited about it,” Dornan said.

“The FAA is going to award six test facilities in the United States, only six. We are going to try real hard to be one of those centers and what that is, is the FAA by 2018 wants to integrate, or has been mandated by congress to integrate UAS into the National Airspace System. They want to do this in a safe way, so these six test facilities will provide the FAA with research on the safe integration into NAS,” Dornan said.

Whether Americans are ready for it or not, UAS is already a part of daily life and will not be going anywhere any time soon.

A remote controlled drone is used by Unified police to get an aerial view of the area. Residents in Millcreek near Olumpic Way and Del Mar Dr. are evacuated by Unified Police as they work a SWAT situation Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News) A remote controlled drone is used by Unified police to get an aerial view of the area. Residents in Millcreek near Olumpic Way and Del Mar Dr. are evacuated by Unified Police as they work a SWAT situation Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

“This is a virtual tsunami about to happen, the integration of UAS into NAS is one of the most important things to happen in aviation since the Wright brothers. That’s how critical this is because this is going to change how we think about aviation,” Dornan said.

Public perception of the capabilities that these unmanned aircraft possess and the potential for invasion of personal privacy are two of the obstacles the institution is facing.

“In the unmanned industry, we don’t like the d–word (drones),” Dornan said. “The d–word has all these negative connotations to it, and that’s not what unmanned aerial systems is about. The people who are in the industry, the people who are doing research and development call it unmanned aircraft or aerial systems.”

According to Dornan, surveillance is not even a topic of discussion.

“People in the business, people in the know, never use the d-word,” Dornan said. “In all the discussions we have about where this is going with UAS’s in the future, the s–word (surveillance) has never come up either. Those are the two things that the lay people think ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a drone and they’re going to be doing surveillance and spying on me’, in all the discussions I’ve had about UAS’s, the s–word has never come up.”

In a field that is changing so rapidly technologically, keeping regulations up to speed could be a stumbling block. But with the carte blanche awarded them by Congress, the FAA is poised to set the bar and the rules for the industry.

“The FAA is the one that’s going to be regulating all this stuff,” Dornan said. “They have been mandated by Congress to make this happen and they want the safe integration of UAS into NAS, so I don’t think they will be dragging their feet because they have a congressional mandate to get this done.”

Aside from the training facility, the use of UAV’s at UVU has become integrated into a new degree that teaches students how to use these vehicles in many different capacities aside from popular conception, including guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security.

As first reported at the UVU Review, Dr. Jeff Maxfield, a former fire chief and associate dean of at the school of Public Services and now acting as associate professor in the Department of Emergency services said, “This is not just terrorism. That is what most people think of when they hear Homeland Security, but it’s much bigger than that.”

Dornan added to that sentiment and advocated for the many advantages of using such vehicles.

“What we are going to use these UAS’s for in the private sector is completely different than what they are being used for now,” Dornan said. “So that’s why we don’t use the d-word, in the civilian sector we can use these in case of an avalanche or someone riding a Ski-Doo or a snowboard or whatever, is trapped. We can send a UAS out there and with the infrared cameras and heat seeking technology, we can locate that person with any type of weather, or what time of day and send their exact location back to the person operating it.”

The unmanned vehicles are equipped to handle everything from immigration to agriculture and UVU is set on becoming an industry leader and to carve out its place in a field that is open to many possibilities.

“See, that will be all the things we will be using UAS’s for, they will really help the population in emergency responses. And now they have this term that’s called precise agriculture. Where you can have a UAS fly over a field of say fruit, and with their infrared technology, they will be able to tell the farmers within days, when this area should be harvested," Dornan said.

"So there will be no waste and you’ll probably see the cost of fruits and vegetables come down, because they’ll know when they are harvesting this crop it is ready because the UAS told them," he said.

There are also economic impacts that will be felt by this program.

“Depending on the size, local law enforcement are able to use UAS’s right now. It’s going to be a very welcome addition to the aviation field. It will have an enormous impact on the U.S. economy — hundreds of billions of dollars. It will have an enormous impact in the state of Utah if we get that site. It will have a huge impact on the region,” Dornan said.

“The cost of flying helicopters is enormous, plus it’s dangerous, but with a UAS you can do it for one-sixteenth of the cost, at least that. And there’s no danger, if it get’s caught up in something or goes down, there’s nobody on board so there will be no fatalities. Whoever is operating it could be sitting here in this office and be flying something over mountains 50 miles from here.”

While much of what will come is up in the air at the moment, one thing is certain: UVU is having an impact that is being felt and will continue to push the envelope in the development of these unmanned as well as manned aircraft.

“Whenever I fly, I pop my head in the door if I get the chance and ask where they were trained, and I bet you it’s a 50/50 shot they’ll say UVU,” Dornan said. “So the neat thing about this college is there’s nothing that occurs in this college that doesn’t touch the lives of everyday people. Not only in the United States, but particularly in Utah.”

The announcement of who will be awarded the test site is not expected to be announced until later this summer.

Jonathan Boldt is a sports writing intern for the Deseret News covering the Utah Valley. He can be reached at jonboldt@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @jboldt24 - www.boldted.com

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