As a descendent of pioneers who crossed the Plains 150 years ago to establish a new life in what was then referred to as The Oklahoma Territory, it’s ironic that the work that I and others in the State of Oklahoma are doing today related to Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) has placed the State back at the center of what can best be described as the new “wild west of aviation.”
Although many States today are clamoring to be known as UAS centers of excellence, whether it be for research, testing or manufacturing, Oklahoma can lay claim with confidence of being a UAS pioneer. In fact, Michael Toscano, former President and CEO of AUVSI, was already referencing Oklahoma, ten years ago, before UAS become the “it” new aerospace technology as a “fly to” state when it came to Research, Development, Testing, Evaluation, Training and Education (RDTET&E) of commercial and military Unmanned Aerial Systems; with its central location, ideal terrain, business incentives, testing and development capabilities, and training and education programs.
We take a different approach to UAS innovation
The research and innovation coming out of Oklahoma State University’s UAS Graduate School Program, and the Unmanned Systems Research Institute (USRI), has helped it expand into an interdisciplinary powerhouse. With a background in design, researchers are today envisioning new ways to use drones for payload delivery or to gather data, collect it much faster or gather new data entirely. The possibilities are endless.
OSU’s new unmanned systems development center, Excelsior, which opened in the Fall of 2019, provides a dedicated space for unmanned systems research on applications ranging from the environment, agriculture, ecology, weather, climate change, national security and space exploration. The center houses USRI, as well as provides a space for UAS collaboration and growth.
What differentiates OSU from many other universities that focus on UAS is that it’s not just about theory, but rather the implementation of ideas. Its hands-on approach gives it the capability to do things for research programs and customers at the government and industry level that other universities simply can’t do. We can go from a clean sheet of paper, to designing, building and flight testing an aircraft in a matter of months. Whereas, other universities do things on paper, try to go out and buy something or rely on simulations. The fact that USRI employs full-time research engineers is also a big differentiator.
While graduate students form the backbone of any university research program, they tend to focus on long-term, hard-to-solve research problems and don’t have the time to help out faculty or other graduate students to solve the time-sensitive problems. USRI research staff work with faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students across campus, as well as external customers to provide innovative solutions with a very rapid turnaround time. Having research engineers with experience in specialties such as remote sensing or photogrammetry on staff puts projects ahead of the curve. Students spend less time figuring out what they need to do and more time involved in research itself.
Research underway related to agriculture includes leveraging drones to take multispectral images to predict cotton and peanut yields and creating a three-dimensional map that measures crop volume under different nitrogen treatments.
When it comes to first response support, UAS are being developed to go into buildings consumed by fire to determine any structural damage before sending crews inside, searching room to room and communicating with the injured. Dr. Ben Loh, USRI graduate and research engineer, created OSU’s All Terrain Land and Air Sphere (ATLAS), which is encased in a protective cage. Typical drones have exposed propellers and require a coordinated landing.
If one turns over, it can’t right itself and take to the air on its own. Dr. Loh’s ATLAS design has a spherical cage around the aircraft, protecting the propellers from debris and people from the propellers. ATLAS is also designed to carry a payload specific to the mission, from cameras and carbon dioxide sensors to LiDAR, an instrument that uses pulses of laser light to build a complex three- dimensional terrain map. Loh also created a version with a foam-board cage that is an affordable option for STEM teachers in elementary and secondary education.
Another first response project couples OSU’s unmanned aerial system expertise with local startup MaxQ. Created by OSU grads, MaxQ is developing lightweight drone-delivery compatible packaging solutions that make it possible to keep critical supplies such as blood, vaccines and medicines at precise temperatures to preserve lifesaving abilities. MaxQ is also working on a parachute system, testing for drop deliveries in battlefield applications.
Oklahoma is all too familiar with the dangers and unpredictability of weather. OSU along with the University of Oklahoma, has been on the forefront of developing UAS technologies to monitor weather conditions, report the findings in real time and ways to use those findings to improve predictive models. This expertise explains why OSU was recently awarded a NASA University Leadership Initiative Award, which will allow them to search for ways to improve real-time weather forecasting of low-level winds and turbulence, such as tornadoes, in both rural and urban environments.
It will also provide funding to assist in improving safety for Unmanned Aircraft Systems flying in AAM operations as well as manned aircraft operations, particularly for airport operations. The team will receive $5.2 million over four years and is led by Oklahoma State University and includes the University of Oklahoma, Vigilant Aerospace Systems Inc. in Oklahoma City, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, among others. The first drone swarm utilizing a hybrid complement of six aircraft was conducted on September 29th, 2020.
This know-how has since expanded to tracking other natural disasters such as wildfires and earthquakes. UAS-gathered data can now enhance forecasts, improving researcher’s ability to predict the direction and intensity of wildfires. In a wildfire, UAS can also be used to obtain an accurate map of the spread of the fire to prevent firefighters from being surrounded.
In Spring 2020, OSU started working with solar balloons to send up infrasonic sensors in hopes of “hearing” the early stages of an earthquake. Dr. Brian Elbing, a professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at OSU, and his team have developed a system of microphones that capture low- frequency sound or infrasound that will be used on the balloons.
“Earthquakes make noise below the level of human hearing,” Elbing said. “You can pick these up when the fractures below the ground start rubbing against each other.”
USRI builds its own balloons and when fully inflated, they’re as wide and tall as a dump truck. The insides are dusted with charcoal to turn the balloons black so they will absorb heat from the sun, which gives the balloons buoyancy.
The benefit of using such balloons is that they stay aloft for a very long time. They use no fuel and can fly at very high altitudes, floating along with the currents of a developing storm where nothing else can fly.
In short, its safe to say that folks in Oklahoma are doing new things that others haven’t even thought of yet. We’re pushing the envelope to develop concepts that may be regularly used two to ten years from now.
Aerospace and UAS businesses thrive here too
Since the birth of the modern aviation age, Oklahoma has been at the center of it all-literally. The state’s central location in the middle of the United States made it initially a fueling stop for trans-continental flights. Today, aviation and aerospace is Oklahoma’s largest industry behind the energy sector. Oklahoma is home to over 1,100 aerospace entities, such as American Airlines, Boeing, Northrup, and Pratt and Whitney, employing over 210,000 Oklahomans, and according to figures recently released by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, represents an industrial output of $43.7 billion annually.
Companies such as NORDAM and Spirit AeroSystems are currently manufacturing components for major aerospace companies such as Boeing, GE, P&W, and Northrup. Of these, over 75 companies are involved with the development and testing of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS).
Two major UAS focused companies recently chose to add locations in Oklahoma. In June 2020, Skydweller Aero Inc., a U.S.-Spanish aerospace company developing renewably powered aircraft for defense and commercial industries, announced the establishment of their corporate headquarters and engineering operations in Oklahoma City and testing and integration in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Skydweller plans to increase operations, adding 120 aerospace engineering and field technician jobs in Oklahoma by 2024. The technology platform the aircraft is built on is the Solar Impulse which was the first solar-powered aircraft to fly continuously around the globe.
This follows a 2018 investment from Kratos Defense and Security Solutions, Inc.’s Unmanned Systems Division which is creating more than 350 jobs by opening administrative and engineering offices and production facilities in Oklahoma City to accommodate an expected increase in demand for high performance, jet powered unmanned aerial tactical and target drone systems.
In 2019, Kratos continued to invest in Oklahoma by acquiring an 80.1% majority stake in an OK small-engine maintenance, repair, and overhaul company, Florida Turbine Technologies, Inc., in a deal worth about $60 million. This deal provided Kratos with a local manufacturing supplier of engines for its unmanned aerial systems and increased its job footprint in the State by an additional 200 jobs.
What attracted both companies to Oklahoma is the State’s innovative workforce development program, Oklahoma Works, which has established partnerships between industry and academia to create a pipeline of educated/skilled workers that aerospace/UAS companies can recruit from.
Secondly, the state’s unique Aerospace Industry Engineer Tax Credit, provides a $5,000 per year tax credit to engineers hired into the aerospace industry, as well as gives the companies that hire them a 10% tax credit for hiring in-state graduates and a 5% tax credit for hiring from other states, plus 50% tax credit for reimbursement of tuition costs.
Space: The Final Frontier
In light of a recent noxious gas discovery on the planet, a potential sign of life, exploration of Venus is likely to also be a focus of the scientific community. UAS applications developed in Oklahoma are ideally suited for such purposes.
In fact, NASA JPL and Sandia National Laboratories recently chose OSU to manufacture and test solar balloon-based systems in Oklahoma, similar to those used for earthquake research developed by Dr. Elbing. This will serve as a diagnostic tool to test interplanetary drones that will eventually fly on other planets, such as Mars and Venus, to evaluate both their interior geography and their atmosphere using ultrasonic sensors.
Vigilant Aerospace Systems too is working with Oklahoma State University to test and evaluate detect-and-avoid systems at its Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) corridor. Using exclusive licensed technology patented by NASA, the team has demonstrated BVLOS operations at OSU’s corridor and has successfully conducted autonomous detect-and-avoid maneuvers using their FlightHorizon software. Such technologies will be key for drones to fly safely in space, but also closer to home. This technology can be applied to driverless cars, flying taxis, or simply Amazon drone deliveries.
As a life-long Star Trek fan, I take special pride in knowing that the work we’re doing today in Oklahoma is contributing towards improving life on Earth and helping set the stage for exploration of “Space: The Final Frontier.”