by Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
December 15, 2009
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.
Grand Forks, N.D. — 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.
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.
Safety a top concern
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.