Unmanned Aircraft Systems and the GA pilot


Unmanned aircraft systems — UAS — are now in the public lexicon.

Everybody’s heard of UAS, but not everyone knows what they’re all about. That state of affairs underpins some widespread misconceptions about what UAS are, who uses them, and how they’ll affect the National Airspace.

Very simply, an unmanned aircraft is a device that flies without a pilot aboard. But it’s not up there flying around by itself — a qualified pilot controls the unmanned aircraft via radio signals.

The UAS incorporates the actual unmanned aircraft, or aerial vehicle (UAV). UAVs come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations, from minuscule helicopters not much bigger than a large beetle to the full-sized long-range Northrup-Grumman Global Hawk.

Many UAVs look like models or hobby toys, but they’re much more serious than that. You can fly a model aircraft as long you keep it under 400 feet, but it takes FAA certificates and authorization to operate a UAV at any altitude. Additionally, UAS operators must be fully licensed commercial pilots, specifically certified for the UAV they are operating.

UAVs can be used for lots of military and intelligence purposes — and they are — but they’re also handy for applications such as checking out power lines, surveying crop conditions, and as traffic “eyes in the sky.”

Getting the UAS industry up to fully operational status in the nation’s skies takes education and training at places such as the University of North Dakota, which began offering the nation’s first UAS degree a couple of years ago. The first class of eight UAS-certified graduated last year — and all have jobs in the industry.

UND’s UAS operations curriculum is offered to those students whose career objectives are aimed at the civil unmanned aircraft systems industry. The program provides the breadth and depth of instruction needed to ensure graduates are prepared to work as pilots/operators and/or developmental team members of unmanned aircraft systems while fully understanding the operational and safety environments of the National Airspace System.

Courses require students to be comfortable utilizing complex science, technology, engineering and mathematics principles. In addition, students must possess strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills. A commercial pilot certificate, with instrument and multiengine ratings, also is required.

UND, partnering with the Crew Training Institute (CTI), recently signed a $50 million contract with the U.S. Air Force to train UAV pilots. This training program includes a team of global defense and aviation technology companies.

“In short, the UAS world is exploding,” said CTI CEO Al Mullen, a key partner in that contract. “New missions are being discovered continually as older weapons systems approach the end of their service life. UND Aerospace involvement with Predator and the UAS Center of Excellence here in North Dakota represents brilliant anticipation and positioning for many opportunities to come.”

North Dakota is a great place to operated unmanned aircraft systems because of its uncrowded air space and low population density. UND’s UAS certificates of authorization (COA) issued by the FAA allow the university to fly in the National Airspace System for UAS flight tests and missions.

The northern border areas of the United States provides a perfect test-bed for evaluating UAS and payloads such as military intelligence and civilian sensors for environmental remote sensing and commercial and agricultural use under cold weather stress conditions. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (part of the Department of Homeland Security), the Department of Defense, and companies such as FedEx that currently ship cargo using manned aircraft will benefit from this research activity.

UND, in cooperation with the FAA , also is identifying airspace within the state of North Dakota where organizations interested in developing UAS can test and operate their systems without the need for an on-board sense and avoid system. Taking advantage of a relatively low population density, UND and the state of North Dakota are working to provide airspace suitable for all manner of UAS operations without the need for implementation of temporary flight restrictions (TFRs).

A major challenge within the UAS community is identifying other objects in the air — it’s all about avoiding collisions and near misses. So UND, among other research institutions, with funding from the United States Air Force UAV Battle Lab, is developing a ground-based radar system capable of detecting low observable aircraft such as sailplanes and hot-air balloons while developing the software to optimally display the information to operators of UAS.

UND scientists from many disciplines are working on sense-and-avoid technologies to load aboard unmanned aircraft. They’re also developing technology to thwart enemy signal jamming efforts.

“North Dakota is well positioned to play a leadership role in Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” said Al Palmer, director of UAS programs at UND.


The John D. Odegard School Of Aerospace Sciences at the University of North Dakota is a world-renowned center for aerospace learning and research, nationally acclaimed for its achievements in collegiate aviation education; unmanned aviation training, operations and research; atmospheric research, including the country’s only public university-owned Cessna Citation II research jet; space studies; earth system science and policy; and computer science applications. With more than 500 faculty and staff and more than 1,500 students from around the world, and myriad programs and projects, the Odegard School is setting the pace for the future of flight. 



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  1. Dan Colburn says

    Fantastic!  Leave it up to University Of North Dakota to be the leader in this new field.
    I spent many hours flying in that area when there was nothing, no air traffic. That was 65 years ago on Mid Continent airlines.
    Dan Colburn

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