Unmanned aircraft fly missions every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, but experts say someday those remotely piloted planes could play a big role in commercial aviation right here at home.
The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has a new unmanned aircraft research center and this fall the school accepted students into the first unmanned aircraft systems degree program in the world. The university has taught students how to fly for 40 years, but students in the new program may never leave the ground.
Mike Nelson is a former fighter pilot who now teaches people how to fly an unmanned aircraft system. He said unmanned flight represents a revolutionary change.
"The last fighter pilot's already been born. The last fighter is being built. And these [unmanned aircraft systems] are just getting started," he said.
Unmanned flight is a developing technology, meaning UND is preparing students to work in an industry that's still being created. A dozen UND students have declared the unmanned aircraft systems their major.
Associate Professor Ben Trapnell told his introductory class that researchers can use unmanned aircraft to do dangerous things like monitor hurricanes and tornadoes.
"That's not the type of aircraft we want to be in or the conditions in a manned aircraft," he told his students.
Most of these students came to the University of North Dakota for traditional pilot training, but sophomore Joe Schaefer said he switched to the unmanned aircraft program because he wants to be part of a developing industry.
"I ended up liking this field a lot more for thinking outside the box," he said. "That's what really attracts me to it ... there's the possibility for things you would never even think could happen," he said.
Uses for unmanned aircraft could include monitoring weather, conducting search and rescue missions or hauling cargo around the world.
The unmanned aircraft industry is still in its infancy and most of the flying today is done by the military. Trapnell said he doesn't want to just train pilots, he wants to educate creative, critical thinkers because these students will help build a new industry.
"What we hope to do is educate and train students with the best available technology that exists right now, but we know that technology is going to change extremely rapidly," he said. "We may even need to teach courses in technology that hasn't even hit the street yet."
Safety a top concern
How do you keep remotely-piloted planes from crashing in to each other or manned aircraft? The biggest challenge facing unmanned aviation is safety. Instructors and students at the university are creating and studying new collision avoidance technology.
Richard Schultz, chair of the University of North Dakota Electrical Engineering Department, works with other professors and teams of students to build and test the equipment that might be part of the next generation of air traffic control. Schultz said the students not only design and build the equipment, they also get to put it in an unmanned aircraft and test it.
"You can take the theory and move it as far as you want, but at the end of the day, you've got to build it and see if it works," he said. "I think that's the real interesting piece of what we've done with students here. We really get them to go to the field and they do their best to make things work and understand when they don't work to fix them."
Unmanned aircraft are strictly limited by the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency will grant waivers for specific flights. Customs and Border Patrol has a waiver to fly unmanned craft along the borders conducting surveillance.
The University of North Dakota has permission to fly unmanned aircraft in restricted military airspace. They hope to have a large unmanned flight test range in northern North Dakota approved by the FAA as soon as next year.
University of North Dakota Unmanned Aircraft Center Director Jeff Kappenman said room to test new unmanned aircraft technology is critical to attracting companies interested in research and development.
"The interest from industry and other agencies and organizations is almost non-stop here. We get calls every day, emails every day about could we do this would you like to partner with us for that. For NASA or NOAA or the FAA or the AirForce," he said.
Kappenman said unmanned aircraft will have the same impact on the next generation of aviation as the jet engine did 50 years ago. He wants to prepare a generation of students to design, build and fly those aircraft.