UI lab successfully tests unmanned aerial technology in Iowa skies

BY BEN MARKS | OCTOBER 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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An A36 Bonanza—a small six-seat airplane—has successfully flown high above the skies of Iowa City with no one piloting it — at least not in the cockpit.

Last week the University of Iowa’s Operator Performance Laboratory in partnership with Rockwell Collins, successfully tested an unmanned commercial aircraft via a ground control station.

The control system tested was the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion. Thomas Schnell, director of the UI Operator Performance Laboratory, said the test demonstrated the feasibility for unmanned aerial vehicles to one day roam U.S airspace.

“The technology has been used for years in military drone operations,” Schnell said. “However, domestic airspace is very complex, managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, with many civilian aircraft. Military UAV’s cannot just go flying about. They’re not integrated with the way the airspace system works.”

Alex Postnikov, manager of the Advanced Technology Center at Rockwell Collins, who worked with the UI lab on the project, said the most challenging part was not the technology, but the certification.

“The rules for the most part don’t exist yet, and the ones that do exist are very restrictive,” he said. “Part of the problem is that there are no [Federal Aviation Administration] certified components.”

Postnikov said when a passenger jet flies, every piece of equipment on it is certified, from the seats, to the radio to the flight system. This certification comes in part from decades of manned aviation experience.

“The [Federal Aviation Administration] will look and say ‘Yep, we agree, this is a good enough radio, a good enough whatever’ so the challenge for the industry isn’t to come up with just a technical solution, but a certifiable solution,” he said. “It’s not the fact that we can fly planes remotely today, but that we are on the path so they will be certifiable with [federal] rules.”

With the system proven to be a success, Postnikov said he believes he will see the first uses of the technology within his lifetime in the form of cargo transportation, firefighting, search and rescue, and agriculture.

Postnikov said the partnership between Rockwell Collins and the UI lab began in the early 2000’s, and since then they have worked on an average of 10 projects a year. 

“We work a lot with various universities, not just the University of Iowa, but it’s proximity to our main campus in Cedar Rapids makes a big difference,” Postnikov said. “It’s easy for my engineers to go to the operations and fix something quick, and it’s a unique opportunity for us.”

The current project to test the Pro Line Fusion began almost exactly one year ago, and despite this week’s success Schnell said their work isn’t finished.

Austin Kleinmeyer, an undergrad research assistant at the UI and part of the 10-member team that worked on the project, said one of the biggest challenges they faced was the simple lack of pre-existing models.

“There wasn’t a standard for any of it,” he said. “It was all new, starting from the ground up. There’s not a template for a Bonanza cockpit for putting fusion displays in there. You have to do that yourself. You have to get out the ruler and tape measure and mark it and figure out where things need to go.”

Carl Richey, another member of the UI lab team, said the lack of an aeronautical school at the UI actually helped their research.

“If you have faculty that are highly involved in aeronautics, they’re more about teaching pilots, and how to fly in normal circumstances,” he said. “They do everything by the book. Nothing is by the book. We write new chapters in the book.”

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