Alex Meyer THE POST
Avionics Faculty Take to the Skies with Drones
March 25, 2015
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  • Humans have their limits.

    They can’t conduct searches for missing persons for hours on end, or fit in small, confined spaces. Or fly.

    But drones can.

    Drones, officially called unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, are being used to conduct research as part of Ohio University’s Avionics Engineering Center, a department affiliated with the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

    There are many potential uses for drones, including tasks that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for humans, said Michael Braasch, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who is a researcher at the center.

    Those tasks could include inspecting disaster damage, monitoring crops and assisting in searches.

    “Farther out on the horizon we can see UAVs that will perform the search in search-and-rescue operations,” Braasch said. “Drones never get tired no matter how many hours they have been scanning the ocean for someone lost at sea.”

    Braasch’s research focuses on allowing unmanned aircraft to “see and avoid” other aircraft.

    Much of the center’s research is largely based on UAV navigation and control, which helps with traditional aviation jobs such as flight safety, crop monitoring and search and rescue, said Colleen Carow, senior director of communication at Russ College.

    “This center is unique because we do the analysis, and we also provide solutions, and we have equipment that is unique among other aviation navigation research outfits in the nation,” she said. “It also typically brings in the most external research funding of any research center at the university.”

    The Federal Aviation Administration, NASA and private companies fund the center, Carow said. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, the center received around $4 million in external funding in 2014, including $3.4 million from federal contracts and nearly $400,000 from industry grants.

    OU is able to fly the UAVs in a defined block of airspace and is required to use particular safety provisions, according to the FAA’s website.

    The university also had to be certified with the FAA to do so.

    “Manned aircraft have the requirement that the pilot ‘see and avoid’ other aircraft in the vicinity,” Braasch said. “However, how do you get a robot to do that?  It turns out to be a lot harder than you might think.”

    Maarten Uijt de Haag, professor of electrical engineering of computer science, has been doing research in UAV technology for 15 years, he said. His research includes developing navigation algorithms for UAVs where GPS navigation may not be available — such as indoors, in urban areas or under foliage — and also collision avoidance methods and navigation for multiple UAVs.

    The research at the center has numerous applications, Uijt de Haag said. The technology can be used for search and rescue in mines, caves or collapsed buildings. The research also includes 3D mapping of indoor and outdoor environments using lasers instead of cameras.

    People who operate UAVs recreationally face less regulation than government institutions do. Earlier this month, the FAA proposed new regulations that would allow for use of smaller drones, placing limitations on how they can be flown in U.S. airspace.

    “The proposed FAA regulations are a good first step, enabling many to operate these UAVs manually or semi-autonomously,” Uijt de Haag said. “This will have great economic impact and pave the way for many new companies specialized in UAV-related operations. What we have to keep working on is various issues regarding security, privacy, liability and, especially, safety concerns associated with the use of these platforms.”