Testing Facilities Challenge UAV Tech On Land, At Sea And In The Air

Courtney Overbey

Friday, June 21, 2019

Ever since Dr. Ella Atkins started testing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs and drones) in the 1990s as a University of Michigan graduate student, the process has been fraught with obstacles.

At first, she was able to test only at a model aircraft hobby field about 20 minutes from campus. Years later, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started putting various regulations in place. Some delayed research for months, and one regulation shut down the university’s unmanned aerial vehicle testing for a full year.

“Over the past five, six years, most of the flying I’ve done — both with students and for research purposes — has been flying multicopters indoors,” said Atkins, who is now a professor of aerospace engineering at U-M. But that had limitations: Testing had to be done late at night and required rigorous safety measures. “And,” Atkins added, “we didn’t get realistic outdoor conditions.”

All that changed in March 2018 with the opening of M-Air, an $800,000 outdoor UAV lab on the U-M campus. It precedes a state-of-the-art robotics facility set to open next door in 2020.

The importance of these new facilities can’t be overstated. Before drones can deliver packages, assist in rescue missions or even clean our gutters, an incredible amount of research and testing needs to be accomplished. Much of that work is underway in Michigan, in settings ranging from academia to the private sector. And that will put Michigan in position to help lead the industry.

“Anytime you’re leading on the research side, the industry tends to follow you,” said Tony Vernaci, president of the Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan. “You want to be the one doing the development.”

UAV Investments At The University Of Michigan

Danny Ellis, co-founder and CEO of the Ann Arbor-based drone company SkySpecs, knows all about being on the front lines of UAV development. Ellis was a U-M grad student when he commenced the research that would eventually form the basis of his company’s activity. He and his partners would use the campus’s off-hours atriums and lobbies as proving grounds.

“When we started working on drones at the university, we didn’t have any space to go to,” he explained. “We’d go to class in the morning, go home, eat dinner and take a nap, and then come back at midnight and flight test until 4 in the morning.”

Today, you need a pilot’s license and campus safety committee approval to use a UAV on campus. The M-Air facility allows younger, less experienced students to get around those obstacles and get flying. At M-Air, students can be working on a UAV concept in a lab and then be out testing it an hour later — a revolution in the university’s research productivity.

“We have a lot of students who have cool ideas, and the last thing we want to do is to say, ‘You can’t test out your idea until you become a pilot and demonstrate that your vehicle is safe,’” said Atkins.

M-Air is just one component in U-M’s growing investments in UAV and robotics in general. Construction is underway on the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building, a $75 million, four-story, 140,000-square-foot facility expected to open in Ann Arbor, MI in early 2020.

“We have just launched the Robotics Institute, but the people are still distributed in many different buildings,” Atkins said. “From day to day, there isn’t the ability to get this cross-pollination across all aspects of robotics.” Starting in 2020, interdisciplinary collaboration will get a huge boost from the proximity of these two innovative enterprises at U-M.

Private UAV Facilities In Michigan

Michigan’s drone research isn’t limited to academic settings. The Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium in Alpena, Michigan, a nonprofit testing facility, conducted its first commercial flight in 2016.

General Electric Aviation operations in Grand Rapids launched AiRXOS last year, a GE venture aimed at helping organizations manage the UAV ecosystem and meet demand for safe drone technologies. GE Aviation is also working on the electronics that act as mission computers on UAVs.

But broader concerns loom in the industry. Fortunately, Michigan is poised to seize UAV opportunities as they arise. “Ultimately, it’s about how you manage this airspace so UAVs can fly over urban areas,” said Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan Chairman George Kiefer, who recently retired from GE Aviation. “There are lots of restrictions on drones currently. The idea is, how do you get beyond that?”

How Research Feeds Industry

How does all this research position Michigan as a leader in the burgeoning drone industry? Research requires talent — and when the most talented UAV researchers are in Michigan, it benefits private companies to be close by.

Ellis pointed out that M-Air, for example, helps to develop the exact type of employee his growing company needs. “It matters because we have first crack at the talent coming out of University of Michigan,” he said. “They have the ability to go learn things we were never able to learn in school. That’s huge for us.”

And they’re going to need those well-trained graduates. In April 2017 SkySpecs launched its first commercial product, a drone that inspects wind turbines. The company, which started in 2012 as a team of three, now has 23 full-time employees, works in 15 states and six countries, and has inspected more than 6,000 wind turbines in the past 13 months. Though they’re soon opening an office in Europe, Ellis says Michigan will always be SkySpecs’ home.

“There’s way too much benefit to being in Michigan right now,” he said. “The economy is growing, and the talent is absolutely here.”

Thanks to ongoing investments in UAV research and testing facilities, that will remain true for years to come. 

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Forbes on July 18, 2018. Since then, the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium was named one of PlanetM's newest testing facility partners, receiving a PlanetM Testing Grant in May 2019. To learn more about this announcement, click here

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