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UND at forefront of unmanned flight as industry set to grow

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Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System
The Global Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System will be based at Grand Forks Air Force Base and fly missions around the world. The Global Hawk can stay aloft for 32 hours and flies above commerical air traffic at altitudes of up to 60,000 feet.
Courtesy Northrop Grumman

Several recent developments put North Dakota at the forefront of unmanned aircraft education, training and research.

Right now, remotely piloted aircraft are mostly used by the military, but the industry is expected to grow rapidly in the next decade. 

Experts from around the country are in Grand Forks, N.D., this week talking about the future of the industry. 

Mike Nelson, University of North Dakota's unmanned aircraft systems course manager, is like a kid with a new toy as he enters building 607 on the Grand Forks Air Force base to give a reporter a tour. 

In one corner of a Wal-Mart-sized building, crews are preparing to install a sophisticated simulator for the Predator unmanned aircraft.

Pilots use the simulator to learn how to fly the remote-controlled aircraft. Landing this $3 million Predator simulator, called a  PMATS  or Predator Mission Aircrew Training System, was a coup for the University of North Dakota.

The PMATS simulator.
The Predator Mission Aircrew Training System or PMATS is a simulator that allows pilots and sensor operators to learn how to fly the unmanned aircraft. The simulator looks just like the stations crews use to actually fly the Predator. The university's simulator will be operational in August 2011.
Courtesy L-3 Link Simulation & Training

"I want to say there's about 27 of these," Nelson said. "Typically, these are located at National Guard bases and Air Force bases for their training. And we have one. The first and only university-acquired PMATS trainer. That's pretty significant." 

Nelson said in addition to giving students an opportunity to learn on a state-of-the-art  flight simulator, the university hopes to train unmanned aircraft crews from Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard and the Air Force. 

He said there's also a strong demand for international training because more countries are buying the unmanned aircraft. While the university is well known for its aviation program, which trains general aviation pilots from around the world, international students can't study unmanned aircraft. The technology is considered too sensitive. 

Teaching international pilots and sensor operators to fly unmanned aircraft requires a license from the State Department. The university just received such a license to train military crews from Spain. 

Nelson said that at a recent conference in London he got a sense of the growing demand for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) crew training. 

"The lieutenant colonel from Germany came up to me and said, 'If you can get me training in North Dakota, we will be there tomorrow.' Because he can't get a training slot at the Air Force location for training until about 2013. That's a long time to wait for your training opportunity," Nelson said.

In addition to the Predator flight simulator, the university is lobbying Northrop Grumman to add a Global Hawk simulator. The Global Hawk aircraft will be based at the Grand Forks Air Force base, and university officials say they could train Air Force crews as well as crews from countries like Germany, Italy or Japan. 

The university started the first UAS major in the country in 2009, and this spring it graduated five students with a degree in unmanned aircraft systems. 

Michael Nelson
University of North Dakota Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Manager Michael Nelson inspects construction of a simulator training facility for the Predator remotely piloted aircraft. The university is the first in the United States to operate the Predator simulator.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"It's growing every year," said instructor Ben Trapnell. "In the fall of 2009, when we first started, we had 15 students enroll in classes for unmanned aircraft systems. Now have 90 students. If it goes up like that then we'll probably double in about three semesters." 

Trapnell said those students are finding jobs that pay two or three times what they would make flying for a regional airline. Most of those jobs, however, are overseas where there are fewer restrictions on flying unmanned aircraft.

Access to airspace is still the big hurdle for unmanned aircraft in the United States. Starting this summer, North Dakota will be the site of a first in the nation project to practice integrating unmanned aircraft with other air traffic. It's called LD-CAP or Limited Deployment Cooperative Airspace Project. 

Unmanned and manned aircraft will be allowed to share a small area of airspace. Three radar systems will closely monitor the airspace. 

During testing, the unmanned aircraft used will have a pilot aboard as a backup to watch for other aircraft said University of North Dakota Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center Director Al Palmer.

"The concept is to develop the procedures, the standards of how we're going to integrate unmanned aircraft into the next generation of air traffic control," he said. 

Palmer said proving unmanned aircraft can fly safely in U.S. airspace is a critical challenge. 

"Access to the airspace is the holy grail," Palmer said. "Once we find that, a lot of good things are going to happen. We've got to prove and demonstrate to the FAA because they have the requirement that we do no harm and that we can fly these things safely. We will find a way to make that happen." 

The three-year project will test various technologies that allow unmanned aircraft to locate other aircraft and maintain a safe distance.

Palmer said there's growing competition among universities for research and training programs related to unmanned aircraft. But he believes the University of North Dakota is among the leaders. The challenge will be staying there.